Ricky Martin is Livin’ La Vida Startup

Grammy-winning record producer Jaycen Joshua was in the middle of working on Ricky Martin's newest release, "Pausa," when the Puerto Rican superstar decided to change course.

"He sent me this song that was done in this technique and said 'Jaycen, I want to do this but I want it to be bigger'," Joshua told dot.LA.

The track Martin sent employed a spatial audio technique that renders sounds into more dimensions than the typical stereo format.

Alongside computer scientist and electrical engineer Michael Seaberg, Joshua – who boasts over 60 number one hits including Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber – searched for ways to get Martin what he wanted.

"You can't say no to Ricky," Joshua said. "He's one of the nicest human beings ever."

But they couldn't quite find it. So they developed it themselves.

The new technique can be heard in Martin's re-release of "Pausa," dubbed the "headphone mix."

"We struck gold, and called Ricky immediately. He came to the studio and heard what we came up with and his mind was blown," Joshua said.

The effort resulted in the formation of Martin Music Lab Inc., and the development of a patent-pending immersive audio technique the startup calls Orbital Audio.

"This whole thing came about because of being cooped up at home during the pandemic," said Martin. "I was going out of my mind and what usually helps in those instances is music. I always say that music heals and that's the idea with Orbital Audio."

The technique builds upon earlier audio innovations, giving users a multidimensional listening experience accessible through headphones. For example, a song's vocals may sound as if they are slowly circling a listener's head, backed by a distant-sounding electric guitar far ahead and to the left, as a whispered voice comes in from behind.

Although the team believes it has achieved a breakthrough in a technology that has in one form or another been around for quite some time, that remains to be seen. Just this year, a Billie Eilish track recorded with "8D" technology made the rounds to great fanfare among audiophiles.

Audio technologist and entrepreneur Sharooz Raoofi told dot.LA he found the Eilish track to be "sonically much more impressive" than the "Pausa" Orbital Audio recordings.

To be fair, Orbital's team said the version that is currently available was rushed to re-release because Martin, whom Joshua described as "very spiritual," wanted it out by the end of July as he "felt it was pivotal to release for the transfer of energy to the masses." Joshua says the technology has since improved.

The pending patents do not list many details, but after listening to the "Pausa" recordings, Raoofi surmises that the team has created digital signal processing technology that enables it to create "audio illusions."

"It's a neat way of mixing and adds a fun dimension to listening to music on headphones," Raoofi said. "But if there is little beyond this, I don't believe it's truly innovative."

There may yet be something beyond, however. Seaberg noted that one big improvement to the tech since the "Pausa" re-release has been to increase the volume threshold the technology can reach, which he said "is very important in perceptual audio because the ear naturally thinks that louder is better."

Joshua said the company has made special efforts to ensure that listeners need not own specific hardware or software — such as expensive headsets or stereo systems —that might put the technology out of reach for some.

"Ricky wanted a kid in Colombia walking barefoot with the headphones he found to be able to hear it," Joshua said.

"This to me is like the evolution from black-and-white TV to color and I want everyone to be able to experience it," Martin added.

The company will provide a "concierge service" to work with artists who want to use the technology. Tapping their extensive industry connections, Martin and Joshua have plans to work with several other artists, including A$AP Rocky, Bad Bunny and Rosalia. Joshua and Seaberg are excited by the creative output that could result from planning upfront to use Orbital Audio, rather than retroactively applying it as they did with "Pausa".

The L.A.-based startup has ten employees and plans to grow, Joshua said. It has "already turned down multiple offers to sell the technology" and is "in talks with several VC firms" to raise funding. It plans to generate revenue through royalty-based agreements with artists and potentially an upfront fee.

The team currently works out of Joshua's studio in North Hollywood but, he said, "[we're] looking for spots and places where we can expand immediately."

Though music is the beachhead application, the company hopes to expand into other areas.

"What we've created here can be beneficial for everything ranging from music to gaming to sports to health care," Martin aid.

"Imagine meditating and hearing the Tibetan mountains around you and having 100 monks chanting around you at the same time," Joshua said.

Quite a departure from "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "She Bangs."

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Tech agricultural unicorn Plenty is gearing up to hire 50 full-time employees to run a new vertical farm monitored by robots in Compton.

The farm, which will open in 2021, will grow leafy greens and Driscoll's branded strawberries, showcasing Plenty's indoor hydroponic farming. CEO and co-founder Matt Barnard says it's more efficient than traditional farming, which is weather-sensitive and requires large plots of land.

"We're severely straining our environment," said Barnard, a former tech executive who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. "Plenty farms aren't vulnerable to nature's threats, such as storms, flooding, heat, pests and pathogens the way outdoor farms are."

And they're unlike the popular images of commercial farms that stretch acre after acre of a single crop. Plenty's farm grows up instead of out.

Green walls of lettuce and arugula grow on vertically stacked beds, using less than 5% of the water required for traditional agriculture and less than 1% of the space. Since shelter-in-place began, the company has shipped out two to three times more food every week.

The San Francisco-based startup will get a boost from the $140 million Series D round it announced last week, led by Softbank, along with berry grower Driscoll's Inc., to establish its second facility. Their first farm was on Google's Mountain View campus, where the company tested hundreds of crop varieties before stocking stores with greens in the Bay Area.

The Compton facility will help Plenty supply 431 Albertsons-owned grocery stores with strawberries and greens across the state — including Safeway, Vons and Pavilions — in a deal struck this summer.

Moving to Compton

Barnard's team looked at over 180 site options across L.A. before settling on a location in Compton, which he calls "a perfect spot" because of the city's agricultural history that harks back centuries and is evident in Richland Farms, a still-rural area. He was also interested in the high density of households lacking access to healthy food.

The 50 new positions for growers, technicians, logistics and operations managers at the Compton farm will be posted by the end of the month, spokesperson Jane Gideon said.

The move down to L.A. is likely the first in a series of new farms Plenty is planning to build. What began in late 2018 as a line of boxed produce sold in Bay Area grocery chains can now be found in retailers such as Whole Foods.

For an industry that didn't exist seven years ago, vertical farming is thriving, Dickson Despommier, professor emeritus of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University told dot.LA. He coined the term vertical farm in 1999.

"In Los Angeles, you don't have to go too far to get into the fire zone and once you're there you realize that it used to be farmland," Despommier said. "The Central Valley of California is doomed. And by the way, how do you think they're trying to put out those fires? They're using water that would ordinarily be used for irrigation."

He said that not everyone is sold on the idea of growing food inside. Part of the marketing challenge for companies like Plenty is reassuring consumers and buyers that their produce is just as healthy (if not moreso) as traditionally grown produce.

"They think that farming outdoors is natural and farming indoors is unnatural," he said.

Still, it's catching on.

On Tuesday, BrightFarms, which also grows produce in hydroponic farms and sells it in retailers like Kroger and Walmart, announced a $100 million raise this week. The New York-based company is currently developing three new farms in North Carolina, Massachusetts and Texas, they said in a statement.

The first company Despommier heard of that was growing food indoors was Newark-based AeroFarms, which was funded by investors including Goldman Sachs as well as the city of Newark, which saw it as a hiring opportunity for its residents. A similar social mission defines Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming, a company that hires employees with developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Autism.

The Indoor Model

Plenty wants to churn out accessible produce that also tastes better, a way of encouraging consumers to buy more because it's "the most desirable option."

"One of the missions of Plenty is to move the world from a calorie-rich diet to a nutrient-rich one," Barnard said. "That means more plants that taste amazing."

The components that determine flavor in crops include light, climate, water and stress, Barnard said, which the agricultural industry can't manipulate simultaneously on outdoor farms.

"Now that we can control things like light and climate recipes, we have the privilege to control flavor," he said. "We view our competition as all the stuff in the middle of the store — highly processed foods with lots of sugar."

Back at Plenty's first farm, employees would walk the produce to the Google cafe to ask chefs for instant feedback on fresh arugula and bok choy. The startup now owns a research farm in Laramie, Wyoming, where scientists test plant varieties and growing conditions, and a production farm in South San Francisco.

Their line of pesticide-free produce like baby kale and lettuce mixes are ready to eat out of the box because human hands don't touch them. Even though robots and sensors manage daily tasks like watering plants and purifying the facility air, Plenty hasn't cut out human work.

A 4.5 ounce box of Plenty greens sells for $4.99 on Instacart, and prices will remain consistent as products are stocked in the organic sections of grocery stores across the state.

The company went with Albertsons in hopes of reaching the largest number of consumers in California. The retail giant reported this week that business in its retail stores rose 13.8% during its second quarter, which ended on September 12.

Like most of its competitors, Plenty only sells leafy greens at the moment. But that will change with the Compton farm, which will grow strawberries as well.

Plenty and Driscolls have begun early stages of research and development for their strawberries at an indoor farm in Wyoming. Testing will be completed before the companies roll out their production in Compton, senior VP of Global R&D at Driscoll's Scott Komar said.

He added that his company, now an investor of Plenty, backs the startup for two reasons: the promise of "controlled growing environments" and the chance to move fruit production to underserved locations.

"These opportunities go beyond berries," Komar said.

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