How To Stay Innovative In Vertical Farming: An Interview With CEO of Crop One

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Agritecture’s Henry Gordon-Smith recently interviewed the CEO of Crop One Holdings, Sonia Lo, to hear about how the company is transforming the agriculture industry, using advanced hydroponic technology and proprietary data analytics to provide pure, safe and consistent produce year round. (You can listen to the full interview below)

Crop One’s differentiated technology stack and growing process make it among the most advanced companies in the vertical farming space. The company is actively experimenting with growing new crop types and cultivars and has partnered with leading seed and research companies to develop seeds specifically bred for the controlled indoor environment.

Crop One recently won the indoor innovation farming award at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture. With more indoor farming operations popping up around the world, it’s important that new ventures are disruptive to remain competitive. Especially since indoor farming and controlled environment agriculture is part of the technology industry, and the technology used in vertical and indoor farming is frequently changing and improving. Sonia Lo explains there are three differentiators that set Crop One apart; their engineering, plant science, and their unique business model. By defining their company as an energy company, they see the critical nature of energy as an input into vertical farming. This gives them a different outlook philosophically and strategically.

And there are numbers to back the success of their approach; their operation costs ¼ of the cost of their competitors and their yields are 20%-60% more.

A recent partnership with Emirates Flight Catering is only perpetuating their continued innovation. Emirates Flight Catering is one of the world’s largest airline catering operations. Crop One is building the world’s largest vertical farming facility in Dubai, United Arab Emirates to support Emirates Flight Catering customers. This partnership has allowed Crop One to expedite their position in the Middle East.

Entering a new market can be complex, especially when you have to adjust to new cultural interpretations. This partnership aided them in this transition. The UAE is a unique market not only due to its cultural differences, but also because they import around 90% of their food from around the world. The UAE also has a strong policy leadership around food security and funding for vertical farming initiatives.

Sonia tells us she would like to see other countries emulate these policies, “They have the ability to put capital behind their ideas and bring in the talent to implement those ideas. As important as the technology is the business model and innovation piece. It’s not just about the growing of the food and physical infrastructure, but about business model innovation.”

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Sonia Lo is in a rare leadership position, as the only female CEO of a well-funded global vertical farming operations company. She explains there is an “issue of leadership and lack of female leadership, correlated to the definition of this industry as technology or agriculture.”

Sonia Lo, CEO of Crop One Holdings.

Sonia Lo, CEO of Crop One Holdings.

However, there is promise for more diversity and inclusion of women in the future of vertical farming. Sonia tells us there are a lot of women who currently work in plant science, and “we’re going to see leadership emerge from women who come from science who learn the business aspect of this and then become business leaders in the industry.”

She also mentions there are a lot of young women interested in the ecological and sustainability aspects. Since more universities now offer degrees in these fields, we can expect to see women coming from these programs entering these fields. Although, she emphasizes that the, “barriers to women entering the industry are going to be the traditional barriers that have existed in tech in general, the narrow funnel in terms of leadership in general for women in senior level positions in technology and access to capital and ability to mobilize capital. This is a capital intensive industry.”

We asked Sonia what advice she would give women trying to find their place in the AgTech business and other male-dominated business sectors. She tells us the importance of building your own capital model, because statistically, women have less access to funding from venture capitalists. Her advice to young women: “make sure your business model is such that you can access other forms of capital.”

Listen to the full interview below:

Briana Zagami