An executive behind Amazon’s massive warehouse fulfillment operation has moved to a vertical farming startup

Insider Inc.Inside Bowery Farming’s warehouse farm in Kearny, New Jersey.
  • Amazon veteran Brian Donato has joined Bowery, a vertical farming startup that grows greens indoors without natural sunlight or soil. At Amazon, Donato managed the company’s automated fulfillment operations.
  • Donato was hired to help Bowery scale up, according to Bloomberg.
  • Other vertical farming companies have faced challenges around energy efficiency, venture capital funding, and scalability.

Brian Donato – an Amazon veteran who integrated robots into the tech giant’s warehouse workforce – is joining Bowery, an indoor farming startup focused on automating the growing process. Donato will lead Bowery’s efforts to scale up, Bloomberg’s Olivia Zaleski reports.

At Amazon, Donato ran Amazon Home Services, which matches cleaners, plumbers, and more with homeowners. Before that, he managed Amazon’s distribution centres (where robots and humans compile orders for delivery), and Amazon Fresh and Pantry food-delivery services.

In many ways, Donato’s new role will mirror his responsibilities at Amazon. Since Bowery’s inception nearly two years ago, the startup has focused heavily on automating most of the growing and harvesting process. Unlike traditional outdoor farms, Bowery grows greens under LEDs (which mimic natural sunlight) inside a giant warehouse in Kearny, New Jersey. Instead of soil, crops sprout in nutrient-rich water beds on trays stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Sensors in the trays track how the plants are doing in real time.

In June 2017, Bowery raised $US20 million in Series A funding, co-led by General Catalyst and GGV Capital with participation from GV (formerly Google Ventures). Co-founder Irving Fain previously told Business Insider that the company will use the funding to build more farms (first in the New York metropolitan area and later in other cities across the US), move beyond greens to other crops, and hire more people.

Bowery is currently testing over 80 different varieties of greens, including baby kale, mustard greens, and arugula. Out of those 80, Bowery is selling six types at select Whole Foods and Foragers stores in the tri-state area. A five-ounce package costs $US3.99, which is about the price of most organic greens.

Like most vertical farming startups, Bowery has been largely dependent on venture capital to build and operate its farms.

Others projects haven’t been as successful.Panasonic and Google have abandoned vertical farming projects, and in 2017, FarmedHere – once the largest vertical farm in the US – shut down.

The nearly decade-old indoor farming industry has faced several challenges, especially around energy costs and scalability – making it harder to compete in regions where cheap vegetables are abundant. According to a recent analysis from Civil Eats, a 30,000-square-foot vertical farm in metro New York City spends around $US216,000 annually for electricity and another $US120,000 on HVAC systems. If the industry can manage to expand, find a more energy-efficient alternative to LEDs, and automate more of the human labour, those operational costs may decline.

Bowery Farm is now working on its next farm in the New York metropolitan area . In the future, Fain said he hopes to expand internationally.

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