Kimbal Musk, the brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, is trying to change the way we eat by creating what he calls a “real-food revolution.”
For over a decade, Kimbal Musk has run two restaurant chains, The Kitchen and Next Door, which serve dishes strictly made with locally sourced meat and veggies. Since 2011, his nonprofit program has installed so-called Learning Gardens in over 300 schools to teach kids about agriculture.
Musk’s latest food venture delves into the world of local urban farming.
In early November, he and fellow entrepreneur Tobias Peggs launched Square Roots, an urban-farming incubator program in Brooklyn, New York. The setup consists of 10 steel shipping-container farms where young entrepreneurs work to develop vertical-farming startups. Unlike traditional outdoor farms, vertical farms grow soil-free crops indoors and under LED lights.
On Tuesday, Square Roots opened applications for its second season, which will start in October and last 13 months.
“Graduates are uniquely positioned to embark on a lifetime of real food entrepreneurship — with the know-how to build a thriving, responsible business,” Musk wrote on Medium. “The opportunities in front of them will be endless.”
Six weeks into the first season, just after the entrepreneurs completed their first harvests, Business Insider got a tour of the farms. Take a look:
The Square Roots farms in Brooklyn sit between an old Pfizer factory and the apartment building where Jay-Z grew up.
Everything grows inside 320-square-foot steel shipping containers. Each container can produce about 50,000 mini-heads of lettuce a year.
The US Department of Agriculture gave the Square Roots entrepreneurs small loans to cover preliminary operating expenses. Other investors include Powerplant Ventures, GroundUp, Lightbank, and FoodTech Angels.
On four parallel walls, leafy greens and herbs sprout from soil-free growing beds filled with nutrient-rich water. Instead of sunlight, they rely on hanging blue and pink LED rope lights.
About the size of the standard one-car garage, each shipping container can produce the same amount in crops as two acres of outdoor farmland.
Musk and Peggs chose Square Roots' first class of 10 entrepreneurs from over 500 applications. Peggs said they represented the next generation of farmers -- though not all had previous farming experience.
Before Josh Aliber, 24, moved from Boston to Brooklyn to join Square Roots, he had never farmed. Now he's starting up a specialty herb business and running a vertical farm.
In early 2016, while Aliber was recovering from a concussion, he learned about urban farming from a podcast. He started researching it from his bed and found out about the Square Roots program.
His shipping container farm runs on 10 gallons of recycled water a day, which is less than an average shower's worth.
Aliber can monitor everything from the oxygen level to the humidity -- which affects the plants' taste and texture -- using the 'computer panel' near the door and sensors in the growing beds. If he wants a tropical or northeastern climate, he can control that, too.
Aliber is selling his specialty herbs and basil primarily to upscale Italian and pizza restaurants in NYC.
All of the Square Roots' farmers sold their first harvests at a local farmers market.
Through the program, Aliber has had the opportunity to work with numerous mentors -- Square Roots has 120 so far.
'Yes, I have the ability to make money,' Aliber said, 'But yes, I also have the ability to change the world.'
Electra Jarvis, another 27-year-old farmer, usually comes to Square Roots three days a week. On Wednesdays, she spends four hours meticulously placing 800 seeds inside small troughs.
Two weeks later, she transplants them to the walls. 'We should be growing closer to us in cities,' she said.
Aliber, Jarvis, and the other eight entrepreneurs are not just learning how to grow plants, but also how to grow their businesses. A large part of the program is learning about branding and 'how to tell our stories,' Jarvis said.
In the late '90s, after the tech boom, the Musk brothers moved from South Africa to Silicon Valley. They invested in X.com, which later merged with PayPal and was acquired by eBay.
Kimbal Musk has known Peggs, who had worked for a decade on tech startups that eventually sold to Walmart and Adobe. Before Square Roots, they worked together at The Kitchen, where Peggs served as the 'president of impact' and helped expand the chain to new cities.
When asked how his experience in tech translated to running a vertical-farming accelerator, Peggs said the two fields shared the same motivation. 'You learn how to execute impossible dreams,' he said. 'This was all just a PowerPoint presentation six months ago.'
Square Roots hopes to expand to 20 cities by 2020. 'Today's consumer wants to know they are supporting companies that are doing something good for the world,' Peggs said. 'This not just a Brooklyn foodie trend.'
Vertical farms can grow crops all year, using significantly less water and space than outdoor farms.
Critics of vertical farms say that the LED lights drain a lot of electricity. Peggs said Square Roots was exploring how the farmers could switch to solar power in the future, since electricity is the program's biggest cost.
Square Roots' lights are on only in the evening and night, although other vertical farms run theirs 24/7.
Square Roots recently built offices inside the Pfizer factory. In its past life, the building produced ammonia, a chemical sprayed on plants that became vital to the industrial food system after World War I.
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