Vertical farming as an industry is primed to scale. Those that know of it often associate it with technology and multi-million dollar investments for expansions. But with so much already having been invested in technology and tooling across other industries, there’s no need to start custom.
Existing technologies and methodologies can be leveraged to build and grow new industries like indoor farming, to instead focus more valuable energy – creativity and progress – into critical areas of business development, writes Ken Kaneko, founder, and CEO of Forward Greens.
Forward Greens founder Ken Kaneko (left) and co-founder Will Tabajonda (right).
Simplifying the field
In 2018, I started a vertical farm, Forward Greens. I was fortunate enough to begin my career at Intel and then Apple, and I’ve seen both advancements in technology and the adoption of existing tools to create exciting products.
I left my job at Apple soon after. I raised $3M of capital from acquaintances, friends, and family, and moved back to Portland, Ore. to begin searching for real estate for the vertical farm. During that time, my business partner and I mocked up several prototypes of a system we later scaled. We didn’t adopt any machinery. Instead, we went through production flow by hand for an exhaustive period in order to learn more about the process and its pain points. The objective was to reduce investor risk by focusing on simplification, a specific area that I knew other indoor farms were not covering. When organizations automate too early, the workflow is solidified prior to the maturation of the process. Meaning, more often than not, the process is sub-optimal and has to be reconfigured.
Sustainable business, sustainable greens
Vertical farming as an industry is still young. Opening and operating new farms have the potential to be affordable by using what exists and what already works. Because of that, we built infrastructure and processes unique to our company while adopting machinery and vendors that already existed in the agricultural, warehousing, and packaging industries. When the indoor farming industry matures, I expect tool vendors of all kinds to begin entering the field, which will provide producers and growers more options. But for now, it’s still the beginning.
Trying to do everything custom only requires more capital, more people, and more time — things that most startups don’t have. In my past jobs, I saw that Intel manufactures a majority of its high-value parts in-house while Apple outsources every single thing. In a young industry, we’re taking a hybrid approach. Developing the people and the processes is the intellectual property that we are betting on to scale these operations into a solution with a less financial burden.
As of now, very few vertical farms have been successful at delivering a cost-effective product to consumers in a financially sustainable way, one that properly accounts for capital expenditures and reasonable depreciation schedules. No one has yet formalized production so it can be replicated and be used as a template to build multiple vertical farms, to locally serve communities and cut down on food travel and waste, to grow clean, healthy greens while still preserving precious environmental resources.