Indoor Vertical Farming 2015: What I’ve Learned by Jim Pantaleo

In August of 2014 I was burned out. The previous twenty years of my life were marked by a career as a software-licensing business development manager; half of this time spent with tech behemoth Hewlett Packard. My ‘field’ positions consisted of all-things corporate; like long days and nights on the road far from home and family with far too many mind-numbing meetings and (far too many) incompetent and adversarial managers. I needed change desperately. More than anything, I wanted the second half of my work life to be focused not on my tax bracket but rather on doing some good for this aching world. I wanted my children to respect me for the decisions I made. With measured abandon, I embarked upon what’s turned out to be a journey of discovery into a different kind of career path…and life.

The seed of change, so to speak, was planted when a friend turned me on to the company he works with on the island of Oahu: Green Applied Sciences. Here is where I learned the terms controlled environment agriculture or CEA and eventually the fascinating, indoor vertical farming. I quickly grasped the concept that agriculture and ultimately humans could greatly benefit when technology and science are applied at its highest levels. The elements of and advances in lighting and robotic automation, software and data collection and a host of other disciplines like physics, biology and engineering all play an integral part in how food is grown in the 21st century. Ag Tech is cool and people are paying attention.

This notion captivated my imagination and made me wonder if I could jettison my tired software career and use the skills I acquired over the years to benefit new companies engaged in indoor vertical farming. I became engrossed and hopelessly smitten with the world-changing possibilities vertical farming offered. I knew, however, I had a steep learning curve ahead of me if I was to be conversant in the terms and methodologies when interfacing with the people who were pioneering and disrupting an industry.

I spent the next three months, literally five to seven hours daily, immersing myself in the essentials of CEA. I voraciously studied lighting, nutrients, grow mediums (aka substrates) and irrigation, HVAC methodologies and the structures used in housing the vertical farm. Along the way I discovered there were amazing people, companies and public and private organizations attempting to make a difference (and a profit), specifically in indoor vertical farming in a closed environment using only LED lighting to grow the plant. I found a kinship among many people – all singing from the same hymnal of reversing the harm that modern agriculture has wrought upon our dear planet.

My first CEA “crush” was on Dutch firm PlantLab. Shamelessly, I was seduced by the pink lights and intelligent website. Without hesitation I contacted their US representatives, Karrah Phillips and Brian Lanes, who fortunately for me are based in California. They graciously agreed to meet with me for lunch in San Francisco one warm fall day. This was a highlight for me, knowing I was about to make a commitment to an industry which, like a new relationship, holds so much promise.

Without question, my journey has been immeasurably helped by the great work of Henry Gordon-Smith’s super-blog Agritecture and the like-minded-people-gathering Association for Vertical Farming. I learned so much from Henry, who I would later meet personally at Nicola Kerslake’s Indoor Ag Con event in March of 2015 in Las Vegas. It was there I also met the esteemed Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, along with CEA industry leaders like my new friend and mentor, Chris Higgins of Hort Americas and Urban Ag News. Chris was a co-sponsor of the Indoor Ag Con event and is a tireless advocate for all-things CEA, including the word CEA, which he defends, in fairness, to include greenhouse structures utilizing actual sunlight versus only supplemental LED lighting, along with “pink houses.”

Being audacious (and thanks to LinkedIn), I was able to virtually connect with some of the industry’s pioneering figures. People like FarmedHere’s Mark Thomann, GreenSense FarmsRobert Colangelo and a man I’ve come to know and respect, Urban Produce’s Ed Horton. Urban Produce is headquartered in Irvine, California, my hometown, a place once known for its agrarian roots which now, thanks to Ed’s efforts, is experiencing a different kind of harvest.

It was Matt Vail, however, as Founder of Local Roots Farms in Los Angeles who shared his work on an 8 x 40 foot shipping container. In early 2015 I met Matt for lunch at a restaurant in LA owned by the rock band KISS, and later I was fortunate enough to receive my first vertical farm cum container tour. I’m certain my pupils dilated as I entered Matt’s pink-lit domain teeming with the most beautiful (and large) heads of butter lettuce I’ve ever seen.

Over the past 12 months I’ve been able to cultivate a relationship with one of Central America’s only vertical farmers, David Proenza of Urban Farms in Panama. David, a brother from another Sicilian mother, was a co-organizer of the May 2015 International Congress for Controlled Environment Agriculture(ICCEA). Scary high humidity be damned, I attended this gathering of preeminent business and academic leaders in the field of CEA and indoor vertical farming in beautiful Panama City. It was there where I met many superstars like Dr. Gary Stutte of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center who has been working on growing plants in a zero-gravity, controlled environment for over 30 years; Dr. Don Wilkerson of Caliber Biotherapeutics, a Texas firm dedicated to growing plants for the purposes of extracting vital elements used in vaccines and for other life-saving uses; and Henry Aykroyd of Intelligent Growth Solutions in the UK. Henry and team seek to incorporate the highest elements of technology; robotics, automation and science into their commercial grow operations. Perhaps my favorite is the gentle soul Dr. Toyoki Kozai from Chiba University in Japan; Dr. Kozai is known as “The Father of the Plant Factory.”

Throughout the past year I’ve had the good fortune of meeting people like Caesar Layton of Cultivate Ventures and Geoff Eisenberg of the Ecosystem Integrity Fund; both firms are seeking to invest capital in innovative vertical farming start-ups.  Admittedly, many investors are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude and who can blame them? Among all VCs, however, is the insightful and pedigreed Will Kain ofRusheen Capital Partners in Los Angeles. Will is someone I’ve come to know and respect for his insight and candor surrounding what it will take for any vertical farm start-up to succeed. The only beef I have with Will is his brother, Tucker, is the CFO of the Dodgers and I’m a die-hard Giants fan.

Like a baseball season or a new relationship, there is no time like the present for the indoor vertical farming industry – an industry both highly competitive and unproven. My journey this past year into the world of controlled environment agriculture and indoor vertical farming has been fun, educational, and I’m absolutely indebted to the many people who have welcomed me into their work lives, many mentioned here. Keep your eyes on indoor vertical farming. It will change the world. It will change the way we produce and distribute food. It will change lives. This is what I have learned.  

– Jim Pantaleo