Entrepreneur Kimbal Musk — yes, he’s Elon Musk’s younger brother — is trying to grow a variety of things inside the old
Pfizer factory in Brooklyn. Among them: a new agricultural venture, hundreds of pounds of leafy greens, and the next generation of young farmers.
Starting fall 2016, he and fellow entrepreneur Tobias Peggs are planning to launch a new urban farming incubator program, called Square Roots. Musk tells Business Insider that it will give young food-tech entrepreneurs spaces to develop and accelerate their vertical farming startups.
Musk and Peggs will create vertical farms inside 10 steel, 320-square-foot shipping containers — all of which will be housed in the old Pfizer building.
The containers will contain rows of organic greens and herbs, and each m
ini-farm will be managed by a young millennial entrepreneur who’s interested in vertical farming.
“These are people who are likely just starting their entrepreneurial journey,” Peggs says. “They will get hands-on experience running a vertical farming business with us — but we’re here to help them become future leaders in food, wherever that journey leads.”
Musk and Peggs are searching for 10 agricultural entrepreneurs to kick-start the program, each of whom will be given a designated shipping container farm for one year. They will get 24-7 access to a their container, and will be allowed to sell anything they choose to grow in it. The entrepreneurs, who need to apply and pitch their startup concept, which will also have the opportunity to learn from Musk’s and Peggs’ networks of mentors.
Square Roots will use technology developed by the vertical farming startups Freight Farms and ZipGrow, Peggs says. The plants grown in the shipping containers — which could include Bibb lettuce and basil — will be rooted in water rather than soil and cultivated under LED lights.
The team has chosen to grow greens inside shipping containers because they are small enough to help young farmers learn the ins and outs of vertical farming, yet efficient enough to produce a large crop yield. One Square Roots shipping-container farm will grow the equivalent of two acres of outdoor farmland, he says.
Musk and Peggs, like many other proponents of urban farming , say that vertical farming has a number of advantages over traditional farming. Vertical farms expend 80% less water than outdoor farms and require much less space, they say. Because they’re indoors, Square Roots’ farms can grow crops in New York City rather than upstate, so produce is fresher when it reaches grocery stores or farmer’s markets.
Musk says Square Roots seeks to offer solutions to some of big agriculture’s sustainability issues.
“Young people who can articulate issues with the industrial food system contact me all the time. They are frustrated by their perceived inability to do anything about it,” he says. “It’s relatively easy to set up a tech company, join an accelerator, and progress down a pathway towards success. It’s more complex to do that with food.”
Square Roots aims to help young urban farmers launch the next wave of innovative food startups. Its investors include food-tech VCs Powerplant Ventures, GroundUp, Lightbank, and FoodTech Angels. The Kitchen, an farm-to-table restaurant chain that Musk co-founded, is also contributing funds. These investors, along with the chosen entrepreneurs’ established investors, will fund the seeds, plants, and other materials they need.
If the Square Roots campus of 10 farms is successful, Musk says the team will build more farms within New York City and eventually expand to other US cities. This August, Musk is also opening a grab-and-go restaurant, called the Kitchenette, at Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500-acre urban park and conservancy in Memphis Tennessee.
Once Square Roots launches, it will also hold parties, host guest speakers and establish a farmer’s market in the Brooklyn space.
Peggs adds that the technology in Square Roots’ shipping containers goes beyond agriculture.
“Each one has its own sound system, so the entrepreneurs can grow veggies to their favourite tunes,” he says. “‘Kale, brought to you by Kanye’ is a very real possibility.”
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