Enter Sensei: a new approach to hydroponics and health

By Mike Nasseri

A multi-trillion dollar opportunity is emerging at the convergence of food, technology and rapidly evolving consumer behaviour. In 2017, investment in the AgriFood/AgTech industries rebounded, with some serious money and a strong digitization theme. Parallel to this series of investments, we have seen a flood of interest from notable tech billionaires into the Agrifood and AgTech industries.

Among those billionaires, Kimbal Musk led the pack as the first to frame the opportunity and went on to co-found Square Roots in 2016.

A re-creation of Kimbal’s slide from his 2016 presentation  “Food is the new Internet”.

A re-creation of Kimbal’s slide from his 2016 presentation “Food is the new Internet”.

Eric Schmidt was next with a signal to entrepreneurs with his formation of Farm2050. Only a few months ago, the largest ever AgTech investment to-date saw Schmidt’s fund, Innovation Endeavours, join with Bezos Expeditions in Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund’s $200 million dollar series-B investment into vertical farming proto-giant Plenty. With Jeff Bezos’ participation in the round, there is an obvious strategic alignment and potential for a billion+ dollar exit tied to the recent Amazon-Whole Foods acquisition as well.

The current projections— Courtesy Farm2050

The current projections— Courtesy Farm2050

Additionally, Alphabet X, Google’s “Moonshot Factory” (and semi-autonomous proxy of skillionaires Larry Page and Sergei Brin) ran a project that successfully invalidated the current economic viability of hydroponically grown staple dry commodity crops and has recently announced a new interest in technologies around agriculture. Also, a billionaire sponsored X-Prize is in the works for 2018 based on “The Future of Food” that will likely include a theme of empowering individuals and institutions to improve the quality of life of the marginalized.

This brings us to the latest entrant, and catalyst for this article: Larry Ellison.

Ellison’s experience at Oracle would have provided him with a unique, front row perspective on the healthcare industry, as Oracle was built on enterprise level IT services for large institutions such as government and hospitals. They have had a hand in the ongoing digital transformation of the healthcare industry and made a lot of money in the process.

Enter Sensei: a brand new approach to marketing a hydroponic food production company. By framing their products and services within healthcare instead of food, they are positioning themselves in a more sophisticated industry niche. Unlike agriculture, healthcare has long been in the process of digitization and has more complex research, services, products and supply chains. And in my estimation, biomedical industries are twenty to one hundred years ahead of the capabilities deployed in a large swath of the agricultural industries.

“Despite the first farm management software platforms’ introduction to the market more than a decade ago, not to mention Microsoft’s debut of Excel in 1985, most farmers, according to the study, still rely on pen, paper, and non-computerized tools (69%).” — Nina Sparling, AgFunder News

Image from:  2015 Industry Digitization Index  — Mckinsey Global Institute

Image from: 2015 Industry Digitization Index — Mckinsey Global Institute

Healthcare services and industry typically holds a larger share of GDP than agriculture in more developed countries. Total healthcare expenditures at the federal level of developed nations usually exceeds investments and costs associated with agriculture, which still has governments involved in strategic aspects of the sector.

At the consumer level, healthcare and food are likely to be nearly endless areas of growth for individual expenditure, as companies combine new technologies such as machine visionUAVUGVfood computing, and digital phenotyping, combine in a massive arms race for the best inter-operable digital platforms and machine learning algorithms.

HMOs and single payer systems have been transitioning to patient driven outcomes as the new metrics of success. This means recapturing value at hospital scale is no longer only about wait times, capacity and bed usage rates. “Let food be thy medicine” is just as engrained in the minds of people as the Hippocratic Oath, and patient diet remains one of the easiest areas for doctors and institutions to boost patient outcomes through quantitative personalized medicine, and the qualitative psychological benefits of well prepared food.

The fact that this new “food boom” has become personal for a few billionaires with experience in building pillars of the business worlds bodes well for entrepreneurs with small scale to moon or mars-shot level ambitions. I saw the proverbial once in a lifetime opportunity to join something big at the ground floor when I joined a vertical farm in 2014.

I would still describe today’s window of time as ground floor for most opportunities in this great game. Some people still think competition is a barrier, but the truth is there is still blue water everywhere and if competition exists, consider it a signal that you are at least on to something.

Hydroponics, or some variant, is the base technology for most new commercial food production technology companies seeking massive investments such as Aerofarms (Aeroponics,) and Plenty received. In my experience speaking to the public about our indoor smart garden product at AVA, hydroponics still hasn’t penetrated the mainstream zeitgeist.

Tomato plants in U.S. Military Pacific Theatre Hydroponics Greenhouses

Tomato plants in U.S. Military Pacific Theatre Hydroponics Greenhouses

An overlooked element of the applications of hydroponics is highlighted in the book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century” (Dickson Despommier, 2010). In the Pacific theatre of the second World War, hydroponics were used by the American military not as a means to produce the base caloric intake for GIs and Marines, but to provide fresh foods that dispensed a glimpse of the feeling of ’home’, and a psychological boost in what was a vicious campaign fought mostly on inhospitable rocks covered in deadly jungle.

A Russian cosmonaut brought an onion onboard the International Space Station for a second time for exactly the same sensory nostalgia and associated sense of well-being that can keep us that much better prepared to deal with adversity. Beyond better integrating personalized nutrition into hospital recovery programs, the current hydroponics boom places the general concept of wellbeing as a positive externality that is also a driving factor at all levels of urban and local growing movements.

We are on course for a future of food that will begin to look unrecognizable to previous generations.