PlantLab: My First Indoor Ag Crush

Blog Exclusives from Urban Ag News

Lately I have realized I need to be more objective and less complimentary towards my subjects and subject matter. It’s important I create get-to-the-point reporting, be a little more controversial perhaps and ask the tough questions.  

I think that it’s time to tell the world who is making a real go of indoor vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture as it relates to precision Ag in particular, and who is not. No more semi-cloaked endorsements of unproven start-ups. No more ink for those operating under the guise of “smoke and mirrors” while bankruptcy looms just around the corner.

To take any other position would not be fair to the readers of Urban Ag News or responsible to the industry at large.

PlantLab’s Headquarters and R&D Center in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands
PlantLab’s Headquarters and R&D Center in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

But for this one last time, I’m going keep my rose-colored glasses firmly on and tell you, dear reader, about my first indoor Ag crush. She’s from the Netherlands. Her name is PlantLab and in the summer of 2014 I fell hard for her. I was seduced by her pink lights and kick-ass website, but mostly how I felt she kind of liked me too. Maybe it was my unbridled passion for this nascent industry. Maybe it was my fearlessness in wanting to connect to such an industry hottie. It was during this time that I was in transition after leaving a 20-year career in software. Like after any breakup, I was lonely and vulnerable. I was looking for someone, anyone, to pay attention to and ultimately affirm me. Admittedly, I was on the rebound and PlantLab stepped into a role of gently leading me into this new, indoor Ag world. For this, I am forever in her debt.

What’s the best way to describe PlantLab? She’s tall, blond and Dutch. I’m kidding – PlantLab describes herself from the aforementioned website, “We are on a mission to change the way we feed the world. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that plants can reach their full potential, so that we can have a world where everyone has access to a sustainable source of safe, affordable and nutritious food. Radically transforming traditional agricultural practices is an enormous challenge, and we need substantial support to do this.” To need and be needed? I’m all in.

In three words, I would describe PlantLab as a company based on science, research and knowledge. They partner with various industries, enabling technology while integrating the work they do to help others grow better plants. Not only are those plants used for food consumption but also for bio-pharma (medicine/vaccines/antibiotics), fuel and for the creation of flavors and fragrances as well.

Brian Lanes of PlantLab
Brian Lanes of PlantLab

As luck would have it in mid-2014, my summer of love, PlantLab opened a new office in Palo Alto. As a California-based human, I pounced. It would be a long distance relationship but I could handle it. I immediately reached out to their NorCal team which included new Stanford grad (Earth Systems/Sustainability M.S.), Karrah Phillips and seasoned (Nutraceutical) pro, Brian Lanes. In time, Karrah and Brian became ever more open to my weekly inquiries about this burgeoning industry and welcomed my audacious advances. Persistence can really be the key to success and ultimately they submitted to my overtures. We became quite close. I now consider them both to have been integral in my quest to establish a new vocation.

Fast forward two years and I’m sitting in a restaurant in Berkeley with Brian discussing PlantLab’s most recent endeavors and initiatives. He is clear that PlantLab seeks to make a social impact (versus primarily an economic one) not only on food production but on human health. Researching the metabolic pathways through whole plant physiology, for example, is one avenue he elucidates as his work relates to bio pharma (think: Artemisia), bio fuels, plant breeding and tissue culture. Those researchers include scientists at Universities, Research Laboratories, and Innovation Centers spread out across the U.S. and Canada.

To accelerate scientific knowledge Brian emphasizes, “Research dollars need to be spent wisely.”  Currently, much of his time is spent with teams focused not only on plant physiology but also energy and larger food system needs, and active ingredients for use in cosmetics, flavors and fragrances, and pharma and nutraceutical’s. The central focus of PlantLab’s business remains the creation of plant recipes developed using their own technology and software, in their turnkey Plant Production Units (PPU’s). The many ways this is applied demonstrates the potential of controlled environment agriculture. More than anything, however, Brian is about making an impact through relationships. He’s certainly made an impact on me.

I started this blog with a mandate that going forward I would ask tough questions. Questions that would make people feel uncomfortable and possibly even agitated. At this advanced and candid stage of our relationship, Brian comfortably indulged me. I asked whether or not PlantLab was solvent and profitable. He soberly stated that not only are they profitable, they’ve never taken a dime of venture capital funding. He went further and told me at this juncture they are essentially self-funded, putting their profits directly back into PlantLab.

Knowing Brian and PlantLab as I do now, I can state for the record his words are the truth and void of any embellishment.

Truth….a word I’ll be intently focused on going forward. The industry deserves no less.


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