How "Plant" Is Designing The Future Of Food And Education
Karim Giscombe is one of those quiet revolutionaries. Meeting him in the exclusive Spring Place members club in Tribeca in NYC, he cuts an unassuming figure, stylish and low key. He speaks with a measured intensity, his eyes watching you to see if you’ve understood the full gravitas of what he is attempting to do.
This former Bank of America Merrill Lynch director (his LinkedIn Profile calls himself a ‘reformed capitalist’) has embarked via his new venture Plant on a crusade to feed the world (using the power of schools, technology and branding) and create a new category which he dubs ‘Agriculture as a Service.' When asked why he’s doing it, his response is simply, “Everybody’s gotta eat.”
First some context: The global demand for food is rising exponentially and will reach all-time highs by 2050 as the population approaches 10 billion people - and agriculture is not prepared for that. There are many efforts underway aimed at potential solutions and Controlled Environment Agriculture (indoor farming as it most commonly labeled) is taking center stage because of the many benefits of this growing process. If the goal is to find the balance between resources and production, right now it seems clear that the future of food must be indoor, local, energy efficient and infinitely scalable.
The business of food is changing and forcing the incumbents to respond to the new dynamic. Amazon acquired Whole Foods, while in Europe Tesco and Carrefour have launched a NATO-style alliance to increase purchasing power, Dell Computer has partnered with vertical farm operator AeroFarms to better understand crop data, and Wendy’s recently announced plans to only purchase greenhouse grown tomatoes beginning in 2019. Other notable mentions include moves by industry leaders such as Tyson Foods, Bayer, Hormel, and Nestle.
Investment has also gained momentum seeing the opportunities, with names like SoftBank, Google Ventures, and KKR placing big bets on the future of agriculture. William Blair & Co. has dubbed it “the AgTech Revolution” and Goldman Sachs has said the growing market may be worth $240 billion by 2050.
Giscombe and the team at Plant are taking an innovative approach looking at under utilized land in and near city centers and applying cutting-edge technology to modernizing food production and distribution - while re-imagining public education at the same time. This first-of-its-kind Public/Private Partnership model is a combination of equally ambitious Infrastructure Development and Social Design projects that have the potential to change many narratives.
“Plant is a platform solution. A service provider operating high-tech greenhouses that can produce and deliver a wide range of fresh, post-organic fruits and vegetables at competitive price points, locally. We’re unconstrained by land availability in most geographies and even with a starting footprint of 6 million sq. ft. per market, we’re just scratching the surface. Solving the production problem is only a part of the challenge; there are numerous improvements needed to the supply-chain itself. This is our focus. It’s the holy grail of retail known as the “Last Mile” and this is where we believe we can have the most impact. This is what On-Demand Agriculture is all about. This is what consumers want. There is no reason to limit our thinking,” Giscombe states. "It’s about resources, balance, and most importantly- people. We believe in building systems for people, not around them.”
Plant’s operation is carbon neutral and more environmentally sustainable, using concentrated solar power and hydroponic systems to refine a process that already out-performs traditional agriculture. Nutrients are delivered through a treated water system and there is no use of agri-chemicals such as pesticides or insecticides and food safety measures control who and what enters facilities, reducing the risks of contamination and food-borne illness.
Proximity to urban centers makes it possible for them to optimize produce for quality and taste in lieu of shelf life and providing year-round access to fresh produce.
It's not just the hardware - but the software that’s taking the game to a whole new level. Giscombe says “It’s not widely understood that Big Data is now an integral part of agriculture and that the two will be inextricably connected going forward. When we tell people we’re in the data business there’s this look of confusion at first, but after a while they get it. To be the best at our core service business, we made the decision to partner with the best in component providers early on. One of our key partners is iUNU out of Seattle. Their crop management and analysis system LUNA, uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to monitor the health and progress of all crops under cultivation allowing us to detect growth down to the millimeter and create 3D models of plants to improve growing recipes — the light, water, temperature, and nutrients — with each new planting. In other words, we’re collecting and synthesizing a lot of data.”
What may be the most exciting element of the work Giscombe and his team are doing though, is Plant for Tomorrow, #P4TMRW, the not-for-profit research and development initiative the company has launched to collaborate with School Districts and educational institutions. Starting with middle-school grades, the initiative provides access to relevant and in-demand skills (technical and humanities-based) for more students at the peak of their developmental curiosity. There is no cost to the schools as the initiative has been designed to be self-sustaining.
Plant-operated commercial farms on district-owned land (up to 1 million sq. ft.) generate revenue from produce sold to distributors within the predetermined local service area. “It’s not really a solution if we can’t reach everybody. Outside of school, there’s still a community that needs to eat. Our produce makes its way to commercial and residential kitchens giving us greater reach and making a greater impact. We’re starting with Broward County Public Schools because this is home. They’re also the sixth-largest in the country, serving a highly diverse population,” Giscombe says.
And what’s the secret sauce? “Design. We literally started with the design. We needed to create an experience that would grab our audience (the kids), while seamlessly integrating into the civic landscape and N55 made that possible,” Giscombe says, referring to the partnership with the Denmark-based group (architect Anne Romme, artist Ion Sørvin and engineer Anne Bagger) to create the eye-catching structures.
The Plant for Tomorrow mission is to foster lifelong learning for all, through active education transforming schools into more expansive learning hubs for the broader community. It’s a quadruple bottom-line idea in terms of producing social value and an economic development catalyst as the initiative also creates a significant number of jobs.
Giscombe, a father himself, is passionate when he says “Our kids are far ahead of us when it comes to processing power, yet we continue to empower them to blindly follow old paths. In case you haven't heard, they’re hip to that- and have not-so-politely declined. Their voices today, sound a lot like we once did. And though we willingly set aside the aspirations of our youth, this generation won’t be silenced, and we couldn't if we tried. Everything is connected today, and how we engage our kid's factors into their view of what's next, and more importantly, what they choose to do about it.”
Now if you’re thinking this seems like an enormous undertaking all around, you’re right. To create the kind of runway necessary to commit to and see through what will take years to fully deploy, the company is partnering with leading boutique investment bank, B.C. Ziegler, to lead the issue of tax-exempt revenue bonds for the bulk of the financing across the U.S. markets in which the company is establishing operations.
The bonds are expected to be available in the market before year-end, with further international expansion on the cards, though the company is tight-lipped about which ones specifically. Plant and Plant for Tomorrow are also open to working with brands, especially those who have an interest in helping innovate across the food and education systems, to partner in scalable and sustainable ways.
Beyond the technology and the business opportunity, what gets Giscombe really energized is the potential for whole scale transformation of the social contract between people and their food. He speaks passionately about this new era.
“It’s a new relationship, plain and simple," he explains. "Around the world, social systems are failing, people aren’t interested in new rhetoric and instead opt for new approaches to old and new challenges. The new standard to which government, industry, and business at-large are being held accountable, is purpose. The new kids on the block are taking over the conversation, bringing new solutions to the table announcing a new paradigm; now we’re bringing the people to the table; through food."
"If it wasn’t a movement before, we’re taking responsibility for making it one."