At a warehouse in New Jersey, beds of hydroponically grown greens sit under grow lights, eventually bound for high-end restaurants and grocery stores in New York City and surrounding areas. Bowery is one of several indoor farming startups aiming to reinvent agriculture using new technology, from highly efficient lights to plant-monitoring software.
Here, Bowery co-founder and CEO Irving Fain talks about the future of urban farming and why it's important.
How is Bowery different from traditional agriculture?
We grow in a completely controlled environment, which means that we can grow 365 days of the year, totally independent of weather and seasonality. The reliable, consistent supply of high-quality produce year-round is a complete departure from centuries of the way agriculture has functioned. We grow all of our food without any pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides.
When you grow in that way out in the field, you typically see substantial declines in the yields of the crops. In our case,we actually are able to grow more than twice as fast as the field for a number of crops. We end up more than 100 times more productive than a square foot of outdoor farmland, and we're saving over 95 percent of the water.
Our farms are so close to the point of consumption that our time between harvest and consumption is a fraction of what traditional agriculture has. We can build a much better business than many traditional farmers have today.
That's a striking percentage of water reduction. Why is that?
We built a system that allows us to monitor how the plants are growing and give them only what they need, when they need it. So we're being much more thoughtful about giving the plants any of the inputs that they need to grow. We are also able to recirculate and reuse water.
What was the inspiration for starting the company?
I've always been a big believer in technology's ability to solve difficult problems. When you look at the current agricultural system today, you see that it is really at the epicenter—either directly or indirectly—of so many global issues. By 2050, according to the UN, we'll have nine to 10 billion people on the planet, and we need somewhere between 50 and 70 percent more food to feed that growing population.
That additional food has to come from moving a lot of levers—it's not just what we're doing here that solves this problem. But figuring out ways to grow food in a more efficient way is important. I became really fascinated with this question of, how do you provide fresh food to urban environments, and how do you do it in a way that's both more efficient and more sustainable? (See also: Feeding 9 Billion)
Of course, the idea of growing food indoors isn't really new—what's changed?
People have been using lights to grow indoors for a long time. The problem was, the light fixtures were expensive and inefficient.
It wasn't until about six or seven years ago that everything changed. The cost of LED fixtures dropped by over 85 percent, and the efficiency more than doubled. The stacking [of crops] was enabled by the LEDs because they're very thin and they can pull the heat away from the plants well. That means you can stack vertically and use the cubic space much more efficiently.
We also have a [proprietary software network] across our entire farm. We're collecting millions of points of data in real time. We have cameras that are not only taking pictures of the plants, but they're running those pictures through machine-learning algorithms and are actually able to understand, how is this plant growing, what's the quality we're seeing—and then in real time make tweaks to the conditions to change the way the crops are growing.
What advice would you give to someone who has an innovative idea and wants to pursue it?
Get started. And don't be afraid to ask questions and reach out to people to gain as much knowledge as you can. People oftentimes are surprised at how much they could learn just from asking the right questions to the right people.
While I'm not recommending haphazardly diving in, there's a point of diminishing returns whereby thinking and talking to people is yielding less value than you get just by getting started.
Often the point where entrepreneurs will hesitate is right at that cliff. They're looking for a sort of certainty that will urge them to jump off. The reality of entrepreneurship is, that certainty doesn't exist—and it will never exist. You've got to just jump in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story has been updated to reflect that Bowery collects millions of data points, not billions.