In a parking lot outside a former pharmaceutical factory in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, 10 entrepreneurs have spent the last nine and a half months learning how to take on the industrial food system through urban farming. Square Roots–a vertical farming accelerator co-founded by Kimbal Musk, with a campus of climate-controlled farms in shipping containers–is getting ready to graduate its first class.
With a new round of $5 million in seed funding, led by the Collaborative Fund, the accelerator is making plans to build new, larger campuses in other cities.
In the program, each entrepreneur is temporarily given a single upgraded shipping container, filled with vertical growing towers, irrigation systems, and red and blue LED lights in a spectrum tuned to help grow greens. Then they spend roughly a year learning the skills to grow food–no prior experience is necessary–developing business plans and working with coaches and experts to improve their entrepreneurial skills. By the end, in theory, they’ll be ready to launch an urban farming business of their own.
Musk, who runs several health-focused restaurants and nonprofit school gardens (and is Elon’s brother), saw the need for a large network of well-trained young entrepreneurs who could quickly grow urban farming. “We wanted to come up with a model that scaled small urban farming, so literally every consumer of food can have a direct relationship with a farmer,” says Square Roots co-founder and CEO Tobias Peggs.
“Is it going to be one company that takes down the industrial food system, or is it going to be thousands of companies working together on a better food system? We definitely believe the latter,” he says. “So part of the engine that we’ve created here is that by training these young people…at the end of that program, they’re armed with the tools that they need to go out and set up their own food business. The hope is there will be tens of thousands of new businesses that end up being formed.” The program offers mentorship and can help connect entrepreneurs to investors.
In a learn-by-doing model, everyone immediately starts farming. “When this first cohort joined on November 7, on that day, literally the farms were dropped from a truck onto the parking lot,” Peggs says. “Eight weeks later, we had our first farmers market in Bed-Stuy, where those people had learned to grow really tasty food. The whole system is kind of geared up to have a very fast learning curve.”
As they grow and sell greens during the program, the entrepreneurs make money; the accelerator keeps a portion of the profits to fund itself. “Our incentives are aligned,” he says. “We are successful if the farmers are successful. So we wake up every morning thinking: how can we help the farmers be more successful?” Even with a single shipping container farm, Peggs says that it’s possible to run a profitable business.
One pair of entrepreneurs worked together to launch a farm-to-desk delivery program that brings fresh greens to dozens of New York City offices. Another student is focused on growing greens for low-income neighborhoods. Someone else launched a business delivering produce to New Jersey while running her Square Roots farm. A former engineer is developing an improved lighting system for indoor farming and plans to launch an equipment business. Another entrepreneur used data analysis to perfect a growing recipe for heirloom basil, which he sells to restaurants and markets. (The accelerator’s layout, with modular growing containers, also allows it to study data about yield and quality and improve the technology for future students).
“The way that I learn is through experience and also through imitation,” says Nabeela Lakhani, one of the first class of entrepreneurs, who joined the accelerator after graduating from a public health and nutrition program. She had no prior farming experience. “What I found most valuable is you’re pretty much thrown into operating a business, and you learn as you go, which was perfect for me.”
Lakhani partnered with a SoHo restaurant, Chalk Point Kitchen, to become its “official farmer,” growing food on demand for the chef. The restaurant buys her entire yield from the shipping container, and Lakhani provides a year-round supply of produce. She also visits the restaurant once a week to wander around tables talking with customers.
“I think it’s important to expose people to urban farmers,” she says. “You should be friends with your farmer–that’s how local food should be. Just the way the chef comes out and says hi, I think it should be the norm that the farmer comes out and says hi. That builds trust between the consumer and the food system.”
The first cohort will graduate in October, and the accelerator is taking applications for its next class; in 2016, it had 500 applicants for 10 spots. In its new location in a yet-to-be announced city, it plans to have larger campuses with room for more students. The founders also hope to quickly launch in more locations. “It’s all stemming from the mission of real food for everyone,” says Peggs. “Ultimately, we want to put a Square Roots campus in every city in the U.S.”