Women In CEA Startups
Women In CEA Startups
Meet 4 female trailblazers raising the bar in controlled environment agriculture through entrepreneurship.
January 25, 2017
Interest in furthering the development of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is propelled forward by the idea that we can create real solutions to some of humanity’s basic needs: like growing nutritious food. By bringing farming under cover, be that in a hoophouse, greenhouse or vertical farm, we have found ways to closely monitor and manipulate growing conditions. These efforts have resulted in extended growing seasons — all while improving food access, flavor and local economies.
But CEA’s improvements do not stop there. As this dynamic, ever-changing industry continues to adapt and evolve, new ideas coming to the forefront aim to solve challenges and streamline systems. Unsurprisingly, many of them are coming from women, who asking the simple question: Why not?
Why not integrate greenhouse data into a user-friendly platform? Why not ask if an abandoned garden needs a revamp? Why not grow clean, healthy greens in the comfort of a home? Why not make a greenhouse three stories tall?
On the following pages, we feature determined, inspiring women who are finding CEA success through their innovations and leadership.
Allison Kopf, Founder & CEO, Agrilyst
DATA-DRIVEN: Kopf put together a team of highly skilled data scientists and engineers to form Agrilyst, an intelligence software platform for indoor farmers, in 2015. Agrilyst utilizes algorithms to track and record data from sensors throughout the greenhouse to help growers better understand their operation’s metrics to improve plant quality and output.
Since the company’s conception, Kopf and her 10-member team have nabbed first place in TechCrunch Disrupt’s prestigious technology startup competition, raised more than $1 million in investments for development, secured customers in five countries, and in January, launched Agrilyst Reporting, which helps growers curate their own customized data sets.
“We’re helping [growers] visualize data like never before,” Kopf says. “Big data is just a [phrase], but having insights and having meaningful visualizations is important to growers, so we’ve spent a lot of time focused on that.”
BRIGHT IDEA: Based in the startup central, NYC, Kopf has experience in helping to build companies. Before founding Agrilyst, she spent four years as the Real Estate and Government Relations Manager at BrightFarms, a hydroponic grower and greenhouse builder in New York. She was one of the first employees at the company back in 2011.
“It was a really easy jump for me to say, ‘I want to be in this startup world, and I want to do something that I believe in and work alongside a team on something that’s a big problem that’s solvable by us,’” she says.
In fact, much of the idea for Agrilyst came from her time at BrightFarms. “When I was on the operating side, my job was to essentially solve problems as they came up. And that was really challenging to do because we had fragmented data systems,” she says.
Essentially, climate control systems and other technological advances provided data to the growers — but they had no comprehensive way of gathering and analyzing it. “I said, ‘That’s it. We can’t do this anymore. We have to find a way to log this data somehow,’” Kopf says. “I can build this platform to integrate this data and build a team of people smarter than me to get [growers] insights into that data.” And Agrilyst was born.
Kopf's startup advice is to make yourself an expert in your field, but don't go it alone. "It wastes time and money, especially in this space," she says.
LEVELED OUT: Part of Kopf’s success in the male-dominated technology space is due to her mindset. She was the only woman in her physics class in college; she’s spearheaded a legislative campaign; and also fearlessly pitched her business model to venture capitalists. No matter the space she’s in, she refuses to be intimidated based on her gender because she simply doesn’t factor it in.
“The way that I approach it is that I’m there because I’m the person to do this,” Kopf says. “I presented the company that I had built because I was the right person to build this company. This [is] the thing I was put on this earth to solve. That’s the way I operate … I’ve made myself the expert in the thing I’m doing, and that’s the only [way] you can have confidence standing up there and presenting something that’s yours, in my opinion.”
BORN LEADER: While Agrilyst takes up much of Kopf’s time, she hasn’t shied away from additional professional leadership opportunities. She’s an advisor for a nonprofit to promote young women’s involvement in tech called #BUILTBYGIRLS, as well as a mentor for Square Roots Urban Growers, a hydroponic vertical farm builder. Kopf was also named Entrepreneur of the Year by Technical.ly Brooklyn, and Changemaker of the Year by the Association for Vertical Farming earlier this year.
So it’s no surprise that her favorite part of starting a business is building a team.
“I get to work with people who are tremendously brilliant and interesting, especially in our space,” she says. “And we have not yet hired from a job posting. We’ve consistently hired through our team’s network. But what we’ve done a very good job at is expanding our network broad enough to find [those] people … and make sure we incentivize them to put them on our team.”
Kopf’s also a huge proponent of hiring people of diversity. Agrilyst’s small team is made up of employees from many different backgrounds, and an even split of men and women. “It makes your company and product better, too, by having diversity and by having people who don’t look and think and speak like you do. By nature, you end up building a product that’s more inclusive for a broader set of customers,” she says. “Not ignoring colorblind people when you are building the colors of your platform; not ignoring left-handed folks when you’re building an iPad that doesn’t switch the right way … All of those things can be included earlier by broadening your community.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Opportunities abound with any startup as it morphs into its own identity. So Kopf’s biggest challenge is keeping the company focused. “There are so many areas of agriculture that have a data problem,” she says. “This is why you see so many data companies sprouting up in the outdoor space — or cash commodities crops … It’s one of our biggest industries.
“But as a startup, and as 10 people,” she continues, “you can’t tackle every problem.” She says she’s proud of the way Agrilyst communicates with indoor growers, listening to them and building on what they want to see.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The most rewarding aspect of Kopf’s job is realizing results from what she and her team have created. “Seeing something physically change, or seeing operational management methods change based on using our platform and how that makes a grower able to reach profitability, or expand operations, or open a new facility, or expand into new crops — that, to me, is probably the most successful thing that we could possibly do,” she says.
Vanessa Hanel, Owner & Operator, Micro YY
TINY PRODUCT, BIG OPPORTUNITY: After working on the administrative side of the Calgary Farmers Market for about a year and a half, Hanel decided she wanted to be the grower, not the one sitting behind the desk. So in the basement of her home in Calgary, Alberta, Hanel launched Micro YYC and began to grow a plethora of microgreens varieties and other leafy greens for multiple clients, including a large local farmers market, a CSA-inspired subscription service, and local restaurants and specialty grocers. Hanel’s offerings include pea shoots, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, arugula and other microgreen blends. “I’m super passionate about quality, delicious food,” Hanel says. “So it makes me happy every day to be growing these happy little sprouts.”
COMMUNITY COLLABORATION: One of Hanel’s biggest accounts is a cooperative with other local growers called YYC Growers’ Harvest Box. On a bi-weekly basis, customers can pick up a “harvest box” that includes a selection of seasonal produce from several different farms in the area. Hanel says not only does this bring her a good amount of business — the collective has grown exponentially from 80 shares in 2015 to more than 500 in 2016 — it also gives her a sense of belonging. The farmers frequently get together for meetings and potlucks and lean on each other for advice and moral support. “It makes you realize you’re not the only one doing something weird for a job,” she jokes.
SOCIAL STANDING: As a one-woman operation, Hanel says she hasn’t had much time to craft a website, but she’s acquired plenty of customers and mentors through social media marketing to keep her going. Every restaurant she’s worked with has found her either on Twitter or Instagram, and she’s acquired some helpful growing advice along the way.
Hanel's microgreens are sold to YYC restaurants and farmers markets.
Photo: Kevin Daines, courtesy of Hop Compost
“Instagram is amazing because it’s so easy to post good pictures on there,” Hanel says. “There’s a great community — it’s so easy to find other people in Calgary doing small local businesses, and food business, and other urban farms in other cities and countries. I connect with a lot of other microgreen growers on Instagram, just asking each other questions, like, ‘What trays are those?’”
PLUS ONE: While Hanel doesn’t necessarily need a large working area to bring in her produce-growing profits, she says her biggest challenge is keeping up with the daily workflow. Because her crop can turn over as quickly as nine days, Hanel plants every week. “I plant on Mondays, and I start harvesting last week’s planting and by the end of the week I clean everything up and I start again on Monday,” she says. It doesn’t leave her much time to strategically grow her business, which she says is her biggest challenge, and so she’s looking to bring on a part-time employee in the near future.
ENTREPRENEUR TIP: Since being featured in Modern Farmer in December 2015, Hanel says she receives many calls from people asking how to get started and where to go to acquire resources. She suggests hitting up local food events and being willing to network, listening to others and being willing to learn. “You can’t expect it to happen overnight,” she says. “But those things will end up counting in the long run.”
Mary Ackley, Founder, Little Wild Things City Farm
Photo: Amber Breitenberg
DREAM JOB: Ackley began her career in a different field, working as an engineer in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) environmental sector for about seven years, but she aspired to own her own farming business while she was working and hobby gardening overseas in Sri Lanka. When she moved home to Washington, D.C. in 2013, she decided to pursue her love of farming. In 2014, Ackley established Little Wild Things City Farm, a microgreen and edible flower producer specializing in more than 50 different varieties. The produce is sold at local restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets in the D.C. area. The farm also sells value-added products, like wedding cakes with edible garnishes and ready-made salads.
LAND HUNT: When it came time to find a space to grow, it was a bit difficult, as it can be in any highly populated urban area. Then she realized the only places where there was available land was at institutions, such as schools and churches, so she thought it might be best to ask to use an abandoned plot on another property, instead of purchasing one outright.
On a jog one afternoon, she came across a monastery with an abandoned garden, so she inquired about it. A monk had maintained the space for many years, but when he passed on, no one else had the know-how or passion to take it over — so Ackley offered to help. “To have someone young and ambitious come in to help grow something productive there and also maintain the space — and then [receive] produce — is great,” Ackley says. So in 2014, she started the business with edible flowers and leafy greens.
But that’s not the only location Little Wild Things is currently inhabiting. When a new restaurant, The Pub and the People, came to the area, Ackley did the same thing. But this time, she moved into the restaurant’s basement to grow microgreens under sole-source lighting.
Ackley has also found success in value-added products such as ready-made salads.
MODEL FOR SUCCESS: Ackley wanted to grow something that had the shortest phase to maturity as possible, so she could have more crop turns in a smaller space. Microgreens fit her business plan well. “I was really attracted to the idea that farming in the most environmentally sustainable way would also be the most productive way of farming, and the most profitable way of farming, in theory,” she says. The shorter-term crops have also allowed her to improve growing techniques along the way. “With microgreens, you grow them every 10 days, so you’re learning everything about all these different varieties,” she adds. “Within two years you’re a total expert.”
TECH SAVVY: She and her four-member team have moved to online-only ordering, which has helped her streamline and organize the business. It’s also allowed for on-demand deliveries Monday through Friday. “A chef can log onto our website and place an order, and we’ll actually harvest it right then and there on the spot,” she says. Then a courier service delivers it to the customers. The process can be as quick as 45 minutes, or a maximum of about four hours. “It allows us to compete with farms that are farther outside the city that can’t provide that type of quick service,” she adds.
Photo: Amber Breitenberg
WORDS OF WISDOM: Ackley says jump in, even if your roadmap isn’t complete yet. “People spend a lot of time planning,” she says. “But sometimes you need to just give it a try, and get past the barrier of doing something ... You [won’t] know what the challenges are going to be until you actually are doing whatever it is you want to do.”
Nona Yehia, CEO & Co-Founder, Vertical Harves
PROFESSIONAL PIVOT: An architect by trade, Yehia, and her co-founder Penny McBride, set out for an endeavor to create a sustainable business operation in the city of Jackson Hole, Wyo. in 2008. Providing local food through greenhouse growing was top of mind because of the city’s short four-month growing season. But the duo’s biggest challenge was to find an available construction site in Jackson Hole, a city whose proximity to a national park makes land extremely costly. A town councilman showed them a piece of property owned by the city in the heart of downtown, essentially left over from a parking garage construction. The land was 30 feet wide by 150 feet long and owned by Jackson Hole. “I’m sure, knowing him quite well, that he thought we would put [up] a hoophouse and extend the growing season by a few months,” Yehia says. “But we had bigger aspirations. We wanted to create a consistent source of local food that served the community year-round, and provided employment for people year-round at a substantial level.”
So up they went.
ONE-OF-A-KIND: Vertical Harvest opened a greenhouse that expands in height rather than square footage. The structure opened in March 2016. The entire building works as a complete ecosystem, Yehia says, but each of the three floors has a different microclimate.
The first floor is public-facing. There is an on-site market, as well as a small public atrium that allows people to “experience the verticality of the greenhouse,” Yehia says. It boasts a three-story living wall, as well as a living classroom where basil is grown and educational sessions will soon take place.
The second floor is used for lettuce and microgreen production, where the product is placed on vertically and horizontally rotating carousels. “Not only do we take advantage of as much natural light as we can give to those plants, but it balances out with supplemental artificial lights as plants rotate back into the depth of the building. It brings the plant to the farmer for harvesting and transplanting,” Yehia says.
On the third floor is tomato production, which looks very similar to a standard tomato greenhouse. “It’s really hot up there because we get the solar gain from not only the south but the roof, and it creates the perfect environment,” she says.
The tomato house at Vertical Harvest sits on the top floor of the structure to take advantage of its natural light and heat benefits.
HELPING HANDS: Vertical Harvest employs persons with developmental disabilities, which resonates with Yehia because she has a brother with developmental disabilities. “That was important to my involvement with the project because growing up, I was acutely aware of our ability as a society to really nurture this population during education, but when it comes to employment, there are still a lot of challenges out there.”
Employee positions vary widely, from market associates, to spokespersons and marketing personnel, to IPM assistants, production associates and even an assistant greenhouse manager. “One of the big models that we use to make this whole thing work is something that’s just recently been adopted in the disability world,” Yehia says. “So some people work three hours, some people work 40 hours, depending on skill and ability, and we have a customized plan for each employee.”
STARTUP TAKEAWAYS: Yehia advises aspiring startup owners to let others challenge your ideas. “Listen to your skeptics and critics and value them just as much as your supporters because they will ask you the hard questions,” she says. “And if you can answer them, then you know you’ve got a dream that’s