As Central Valley Farmlands Suffer Fire and Drought, a New Vertical Farm Is Sprouting — in Compton

Francesca Billington

Francesca Billington is a freelance reporter. Prior to that, she was a general assignment reporter for dot.LA and has also reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.

As Central Valley Farmlands Suffer Fire and Drought, a New Vertical Farm Is Sprouting — in Compton

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. 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.

https://twitter.com/frosebillington
francesca@dot.la
🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

🔦 Spotlight

Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits

  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

Download the dot.LA App

Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



Download the dot.LA App

🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

LA Venture Funds


Download the dot.LA App

RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS
Trending