A Forbes article, written by Donald Marvin
Originally published on Forbes.com
Can Cutting Costs Via Robotics Unlock Vertical Farming Profits?
Despite the enthusiasm of the investment community for vertical ag in recent years, the indoor vertical farming industry has yet to deliver an economically viable business model. No matter how well funded they might be, most indoor vertical farms struggle to be profitable. The reasons are simple: high operating costs, especially for labor and energy.
One of the newest entrants to the vertical ag scene, Fifth Season, has designed its first 60,000-square-foot indoor vertical farm, now being constructed near Pittsburgh, and is looking ahead toward solving the profitability challenge. The company got its start under the name RoBotany while in the incubator program at Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, which supports innovation coming out of the university’s renowned robotics, business and other schools. Drive Capital and other investors with connections to CMU have helped supply over $35 million in total funding to date to help Fifth Season commercialize its innovative technology platform.
Cofounder and CEO Austin Webb, a CMU alum and former investment banker with B. Riley FBR, said it took the company three years to develop and perfect its platform technology at two indoor R&D farms, working out of an old warehouse in Pittsburgh. Webb and his team—plant scientists and robotics and AI engineers—designed their facility to achieve the goal of producing greens, including spinach, arugula, lettuce and herbs, to be sold locally, at affordable prices and at a profit.
Fifth Season’s first commercial, large-scale indoor vertical farm will begin operation in early 2020. It is a welcomed participant in the revitalization of the riverside town of Braddock, longtime home of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works, one of the oldest still-operating steel plants in the Monongahela Valley.
Webb and his colleagues noticed early on that, after an initial surge of investments in vertical farming, funders have more recently been posing very pointed questions about profitability. Accordingly, said Webb, his team has been designing with profitability as the paramount objective.