Austin Webb is leading a startup that aims to upend the food system. How? By using robotics and AI to build and operate highly efficient, commercial-scale urban vertical farms.
In late September 2019, his company Fifth Season (originally founded as RoBotany) came out of stealth mode by announcing a $35 million round of funding. With this capital, it plans to build its first commercial-scale indoor vertical farm to be located just outside Pittsburgh, in Braddock.
The startup plans to expand into other similarly-sized cities throughout the US.
In this episode, Austin and Aaron discuss the seismic impact Austin believes vertical farming can have, how this model reduces labor costs & water usage, and the composition of the team pursuing this goal.
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Watson: “Austin, Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.”
Austin Webb: “Thank you so much - it’s a pleasure to be here.”
Watson: “You've had a whirlwind of a last couple weeks. The company that renamed itself from Robotany to Fifth Season announced thirty-five million dollars in funding. How long has the farm actually been under construction, or when did the renovations begin for the space in Braddock?”
Austin Webb: “So, really June. They were doing earth work in April in May and really started kicking off construction in the June timeframe...”
Watson: “Gotcha. But I'd imagine that upon releasing the PR, and the raise, and all the other stuff, there's just a boatload of people coming at you asking questions and different PR requests and stuff like that. What's that kind of whirlwind been like?”
Austin Webb: “It...Well, it's super-exciting because obviously we had chosen to be in stealth mode for a number of different strategic reasons, which I wouldn't always normally recommend, but in our case just in a space where there's a lot of noise - a lot of people speaking around about what they're doing, and felt a little premature in a lot of ways, and so in our case, we said - you know what - why don't we just hold off until we can really cut through that noise. We're doing something different anyway and we know that, so once we did come out of stealth mode, if you will (and again it was sort of semi-stealth - it’s not like we went crazy and were trying to be super-quiet and sort of paranoid or something like that), it was just more of we didn't want to consciously come out and speak and do exactly what we're talking about today. So when we did finally come out of stealth mode, it's just a lot. It's really exciting because we had a lot of folks that said you're really building something that big, or I didn't know about this, or for some of the folks that did know, it just became this nice ‘okay I see what you've been doing now,’ and so that was a really nice feeling for us and just a lot of internal momentum and motivation that certainly built up. You know for our team, it's also really exciting for our employees who are working their butts off, so it's a really nice reward internally as well.”
Watson: “And there's a couple other founders in town that come to mind where there's a similar philosophy of ...you could almost in one direction take it to humility but also maybe take another direction of confidence of ‘this is gonna work/this is gonna be big/what we're building is something of substance here/ but like let's hold our horses on too much/hype too much excitement/too much talking publicly about this, and just kind of put our heads down, get to work and make the thing. So was that something that you started with... from the earliest age back when it was Robotany before it became Fifth Season? We'll talk about the name change. Was that always the philosophy? Was that advice that you got from a mentor or an early investor? Where did that kind of framework come from because that's not necessarily everyone's instincts?”
Austin Webb: “Totally. I think it was a combination. I mean when we first started working, there's a little bit of ‘okay what are you doing,’ and there were a number of questions, and then pretty quickly we started to realize that we should really just keep our heads down - noses to the grindstone, and really walk the walk. Once you walk the walk, then the talk becomes something that people are interested in and can actually care about. There's something tangible to look at, and we did get some of that advice from some of our advisors where there's again, given the space we're in, there was a bit of that where the advice really made sense. It's very applicable in this situation. In some cases, that's not necessarily the case because you can be talking and really trying to do both at the same time, but it's hard. And I can at least say from from this standpoint where you were, you kind of keep the nose to the grindstone and then you come out and pick your head up and say hey here we are, here's what we've been doing...here's what all of our folks have been hard at work doing over the last few years.
It's a little bit easier because obviously when you start getting a lot of press it becomes much harder, right? It's that you really want to stick to working on the business, but it's a lot of time... it's a lot of time to to go out and tell your story to be on a number of different publications or different streams of media, so it's something where it becomes a priority and time time management thing. So in our case, it was also kind of nice, because we could really kind of chunk it into two different sequences.”
Watson: “Makes sense. Now we've talked - to dance around a little bit - this space: We've said a couple times, it's vertical farming and it is a big idea, and when I say when I say that, to set things up for folks, $35,000,000 (around). Just within the context of Pittsburgh, is a pretty big number for this kind of start-up ecosystem, but anywhere, that is indicative of a big idea and a big vision being painted for potential investors, for early employees, for the intentions of your founding team, and the people around you. So, talk a little bit about what this vision is and then maybe we can tie it to the new name from Robotany to Fifth Season.”
Austin Webb: “Well, absolutely, that would be great. That is a great question. So to start, vertical farming is a new age method of growing food indoors, where you can control the environment 24/7/365 where plants are stacked like a bookshelf, and you can control every aspect of the environment. So, you can really maximize quality and ensure freshness, and you can have a fresh salad in the middle of January, for example, because you're able to control the entire environment. Everything's perfect. Food health is maximized as well, and so vertical farming can solve a lot of huge problems, which I'm happy to talk about.
But, there's been this industry-wide struggle to make the economics work, in other words, not profitable - not making money - on a per pound basis - selling things at $12 a pound and it costs 17 to 20 bucks. That's something we saw that is sort of how we started our journey three years ago; we really found that labor was a huge issue inside vertical farming alone, and 40-60% of your costs can't be labor, because what's happening is you're having $17-20 as the cost per pound, and you really need to be down at $6.50-8. That's comparative with field grown and produced out in the West, and that's something that we really looked at, and said we should take a blank warehouse - we should design this from seed to harvest to package - and it really is a full system view. It's not about one or two robots, or one or two parts of the process that can say ‘hey let's put a band-aid over this, and voila we saw the problem.’
We looked at vertical farming and realized we need to design the entire system from start-to-finish because this is about total system throughput. We have about 40 different BOTS that all together get integrated into what we look at as our facility is one robotic system, and that's allowed us to take labor to 20% or less. Everything's just the beginning for us right now, so when we're achieving field grown-type costs, what's exciting is it's only going to get better from here, and so it's a big reason why we existed. Just to keep rolling on this point, part of the reason why we also got started is that it wasn't just obviously ‘hey we can solve vertical farming,’ but of course it was ‘well vertical farming can be this wonderful application to solve problems like water shortages right,’ and the impending water crisis that's happening globally and most people don't realize it - top slow degradation past the breaking point on that globally in here in the US as well - runoff pollution is at an all-time worse.
Then, of course, food waste is also a major point of concern, and so when we were getting started on Robotany, now Fifth Season, we really looked at and said okay sometimes as a start-up you only get the chance to solve one major problem, and in our case we are solving like six, and so we just couldn't put it down. So to look at an industry that wasn't solving the problems and in a way that we thought made the most sense, un other words, with economic sustainability, we said ‘we can go fix that,’ and we can certainly leverage the amazing tech talent here in Pittsburgh, and that's why I wound up at Carnegie Mellon to go do that. That's sort of that full evolution of how we got started, how we looked at this problem, and then said this can be solved, and then go to do that. That’s what makes us very different today and set a new standard.”
Watson: “So, let me try to say a little bit back to you, just to make sure I understand and that the audience does as well. So traditionally, vertical farming up until now has had these high labor costs that are higher relative to when most people think farm/person/the field-probably outside of the city a ways/the labor costs there - you're effectively bringing the labor costs down to the level of that traditional farm. But, where the economics get really interesting is getting back to the name Fifth Season, a traditional farm has its spring, its summer, its fall, and its winter, and there is a pretty unalterable cycle to their growing seasons. Whereas a perpetual growing system, indoor climate-controlled, that you can have with this indoor farm, when married to the traditional labor costs of the regular farm, actually becomes perhaps should every everything work out, even stronger economically than a traditional farm.”
Austin Webb: “Absolutely, that's a hundred percent the case. You get so many more turns. We have a perfect environment. There are certain crops that take 21 days to grow outside and we're growing those in 15 or 14. There are certain crops that typically can take 14 days and we're growing them in seven right, so you're able to do that many more times throughout the year, and then as you mentioned, in a way you don't have seasons, or you have this ‘fifth season’ which is when we're able to grow 24/7/365.
The other aspect of our name really feeds to the fact that we are a consumer tech company that's creating a new era of fresh foods, and how we're doing that as a tech company right is our technology allows us to attain a season that otherwise is unattainable for anything else without our technology. So there's a dual meaning in terms of the Fifth Season name so it's really exciting.”
Watson: “So let's talk a little bit about the composition of the team, because we did another high technology interview here in the last two months with Chetan Richly at Locamation, and there's no expert in autonomous vehicles, there's an expert in computer vision, and there's an expert in sensors and machine learning, and these other elements and you blend them together and they're multifaceted. No one comes into an organization except for maybe just the absolute most exceptional, with the understanding of the biology of the crops, and the expertise of robotic and mechanical engineering, and the composition of the farming industry and the business models in general, so talk us through a little bit of like the composition of a team that you bring together to pursue such a lofty goal.”
Austin Webb: “Yeah it's a great question, because we talk all the time at Fifth Season about the breadth and depth that we have to achieve, and and what's exciting about that as well for for all the folks including myself working at Fifth Season, or hopefully those that are interested in working at Fifth Season, is how hard of a challenge that can be, which makes fun right? Every day, there's another problem to solve, and so to get back to your core question around the compilation of the team, there's definitely this engineering, growing, and business at the highest levels and within engineering, we have a number of different pods.
You really have to be focused across hardware and software. You're not just doing one or the other, so you've got heavy industrial mechanical engineering, you've got a combination in terms of everything that comes together in robotics form, which is going to be hardware, software, a lot of embedded systems, and firmware. Work all of that together - there's a lot, so you really need to have a number of folks on the team in order to achieve that, and then they need to integrate and collaborate and coordinate with plant scientists and growers. Sometimes they have Masters or PhDs in horticultural and other plant science subjects, so then there's this amazing piece where plant science and engineering, that in many cases in their worlds are completely separate, come and meld together because at the end of the day in a way, if you think of it, as we create a tech product that we give to ourselves to then grow a completely differentiated a new kind of new era of fresh food for consumers to enjoy within 24 hours of having it.
In that case we're making two products - one for ourselves, in order to make this differentiated distinguished product to make the world a better place than we found it - so those two really meld together and you have just very interesting synergies. It's really fun to watch incredibly smart people, all of them way smarter than me, to watch them do that, and then of course you do add in the business side of things, where obviously at the end of the day everything has to be economically sustainable and make sense, and get to the consumer in a way that they can understand it -- understand that this is a different product that makes their life better than they did before. It is really fun to put all this together, but you really have to get a lot of different skill sets to come together and you never know - when I didn't think I'd become a modern farmer that's the first thing - but certainly once I did, I didn't realize about how difficult it would be when I'm going out and I'm hiring our plant scientists and grow R&D folks and our grower and plant managers - that that's something I've never hired before.”
Watson: “How do you identify the expert from whatever collection of people might be out there to potentially recruit?”
Austin Webb: “Oh, yeah...it's hard. I mean you have to basically just get to the point where you've really broken it down into a number of KPIs that you understand, in this case that I understand, and then at that point see how a person's going to fit in terms of meeting and exceeding those, but you know at no point can I ever kind of get in that mindset of ‘hey I'm an expert so I know how to go hire an expert.’ You really have to listen, and you really have to just kind of match it back to some key business objectives that I can understand, and then obviously once we hire them they're the best person for the job, so at no point in time I go and say ‘Cool, I've now hired you so let me tell you how to do your job’ - what would be the point?”
So it's fun because then obviously empowerment it is part of my leadership style anyways. It should really be anyone's in today's modern era, and that's just a fun thing to watch someone just just go and do an amazing job.”
Watson: “And it's thrilling, like I work with AT here and and at some point I don't even know exactly when he started just coming to me saying ‘like hey I made this new thing,’ and it's like I didn't even have the creativity or the talent to even conceive of something like that but that is it incredibly fulfilling position to be in as a leader.”
Austin Webb: “Yeah it really is because you just get to let someone fly, and it's perfect, and like you said they
do a better job than you ever would.”
Watson: “Amen. So, I feel a little guilty - we may have actually hit listeners with a little pang of terror when you talk about the impending water shortage and you don't know exactly what that means or what that is. We just kind of glossed over it, so I'm gonna come back and hopefully put the people that you set off some alarm bells for at ease. Let's talk a little bit about what the reality of that is, because that's not I think universal knowledge for most people, and then talk a little bit about where the water efficiency comes from from growing within this framework of Fifth Season.”
Austin Webb: “So when you look at agriculture, and it uses over 70- 80% of fresh water, and then
you look at the runoff pollution and what occurs mostly stemming from agriculture, they're just really big problems that a lot of people don't think about on a daily basis. When you look at watersheds and everything throughout the country, and even globally, it can be a little scary when you hear some of the experts mentioning when they think certain water tables and watersheds are gonna potentially become dry, and so a lot of it just comes down to more efficient water use and it really all feeds into some of the major climate climate change discussions that we really need to to find a way to get on common ground together, because right now I think a lot of folks are in two different places in terms of where they sit on that. We just need to be able to get at least on the same page so we can have a productive discussion.
In terms of the second part of the question, which is ‘how do we help in that fashion’: we use over 90-95% less water when we grow our crops, and the biggest reason is because we bring in city water, and we do a three-part filtration. To that, we add our nutrient-rich water which then all that irrigates to the plants. Once certain water that's not used, we don't just drain to waste, we recycle that, and we do treatment to it (UV treatment ozone oxidation) and what that allows us to do is kind of get back to where we can reuse the water again. As a result, we're not just doing a bunch of drain to waste, and so that recirculation loop can be a huge savings, and there's still other parts of the process where we want to improve in terms of water use.
If you think about the amount we need to use to clean all of our pieces of equipment, right there is a lot of things over time where obviously once you go from zero to one and you've built the thing and you go into one to end, you can look at these things and start ‘hey you know we can do that better/hey we can do this process better as well,’ and so we're excited to get to that as we keep moving forward. Those are some of the key highlights, and that's how we, from a water perspective, are able to have a really nice impact where we can just do more with less inside of the city environment.”
Watson: “From this standpoint, if someone who's just wildly ignorant about farming in general and the production and the growth of plants and horticulture and all this other stuff, it's like there's a couple things that kind of break whatever pre-existing notion you had about how the world works. It's hard for me to really grasp how a plant can grow with so much fewer water - recycling obviously takes a lot of that. It may help to make sense but also the natural light, so you talk about indoors and I've seen a greenhouse but there’s semi-translucent windows, so obviously some sun is getting in. I don't really completely understand how the greenhouse works either, but we're talking about a building with a roof on top of it, and exclusively artificial light facilitating the growth of the plant, so can you talk a little bit at a basic level how that works, how is that possible, and and why you're optimistic about it?”
Austin Webb: “Absolutely, and it's a nice segue from the water question, because if you're taking nutrient-rich water and you're taking that directly to the roots and you're not talking a foliar spray on top of the leaves, you're obviously going to have a much more efficient uptake by the plants of the nutrients and the water. The same goes from a spectrum standpoint: the majority of the spectrum coming from the sun is going to waste when it comes to transpiration and growth of the plants, so when you can really dial in spectrum (blue and red) majority is a vegetative state, those spectrums allow you to really pinpoint in the growing process. I do wish a summer plant scientists were here to answer this question because I'd love to see them just start walking you through micromoles and par values and everything to go through it, but in terms of layman's terms, which is the language I typically speak, it's just really nice because you're able to just dial in what spectrums you're using and that just creates this efficiency that otherwise you wouldn't have.
You also have a variability with the sun; even greenhouses that use it - a lot of them are now bringing in supplemental LED lighting, because you can't control, especially here in Pittsburgh. We have plenty of cloudy days and you can't really control what the clouds and the sun are going to look like.
In our case, we're able to take all that down to - have you ever heard the term ‘precision agriculture’ - well in our case we're able to do precision agriculture within a precise environment that we've created as opposed to trying to do precision AG within an unstructured number of confounding factors and variables that outside of that, you can't control, which is traditional agriculture. In our case, we get to to define exactly what the environment looks like, so then our growers can say ‘hey, this customer wants this product - I want to go in - here's the exact risk grow recipe,’ and tells the system exactly what we want throughout the life of the plant and then let the system take it from there and just do exactly what the grow recipe states.”
Watson: “Something that I'm sensing here that we don't necessarily even get into when it comes
to this podcast, but I feel like we can go here with it, is that there's all these macro trends at play and once again we talk about a big idea, it has to in some way be involved with the macro trends that we're seeing across the board. What is also interesting about this concept we visited - you'll see some B-Roll in the videos associated with this podcast -- that he is putting together some B-Roll of the facility -- it's not done yet but it's in Braddock, it is not out in the countryside. It is not acres upon acres upon acres of land; it's a big building, but it is a much more limited set of real estate, and in visiting there, and even just driving there, like how long I think I would have to drive to get to a farm. I think I would have to drive to get to Fifth Season’s facility and what is the relationship between growing and real estate.
When you look at other macro trends, have more and more people moving into cities, more and more people looking to repurpose land, and you know suburbs that used to be the suburbs turning into places that are less desirable for some people, there's a lot of interesting things from a real estate plan. The transportation of these crops, not across a continent, not across an ocean, not across the country, but across an interstate -- so talk a little bit about when this vision that you and the team have in mind for Fifth Season coming to reality and the type of spaces that get to be repurposed as farms that traditionally we would never think of as being viable for that use case.”
Austin Webb: Absolutely. So, I mean when we started Fifth Season, we really looked at the food distribution system and said it's broken and way too complicated, and we should simplify this with simple solutions. A big part of that is growing food where people consume it, and so when you look at 98% of leafy greens and herbs, which is an 11 billion dollar market by the way, and growing at 8%, so eating a lot of it, and it comes from Salinas Valley California, Yuma, Arizona, or outside the country, Mexico and South America. You can look at that right there and say okay, well at a minimum it's usually six or seven days for a crop to get here, and in many cases, it can be eight or more. You put all that together, and you realize there's just a lot of waste there. You've got a lot of food miles; you’ve got a lot of food waste in terms of it going to food spoiling on the way.
Then of course, by the time it gets to the shelf, then it's spoiling on the shelf then it gets to your fridge and then spoils on the fridge because it maybe only lasts two or three days. I don't know about you but that always drives me nuts, so in this case we're able to take farms, put them in urban environments, and have produce in people's hands within 24 hours of harvest, and then at that point, you've got over 3x shelf-life (in some cases even three weeks), so three days to three weeks of shelf life in your fridge is a big difference when you think about food waste across the globe and even in just across the country.
To get back to part of your question, what that can also mean is you're looking at urban environments, so if you create a perfect environment in a 60,000 square-foot building, so that's just one-and-a-half acres, right, and within that you have we have a 25,000 square foot grow room, so basically half an acre, we're able to convert that into what's the equivalent of well over 130,000 square-feet, so five acres right? Then within that, when we talk about growing for 24/7/365, and then growing plants faster, at the end of the day you just start to get multiples upon multiples of more yield per 2D square-foot, and so then what you can finally do is take that all the way to the end of the line which is where do we want to grow this. In which part of the city do we want to grow it?
In our case, a big social mission of ours is to go into communities just like Braddock where you've got this industry of finding legacy that we're able to repeat as an industry of finding company in our space - a hard work ethic which is a big part of our values, and at the end of the day, we all want to be a part of a community and support each other and that's something that we think we can do, where we can really start to to show people, ‘hey this is a new modern way of growing’ and really once again reconnect people to their food.
That complicated food distribution has some people disconnected from their food, so we should reconnect them to that and that's part of what we're doing a Fifth Season from a consumer perspective, and bringing a new era of fresh foods and new experiences, but it also is in terms of the training of our of our kids and everything and from an education standpoint. It is about that connection of STEM and education, and this is where our food comes from and this is where our food used to come from and here's where it can come from now. I think that's a really big part of community bonding and community support that food just naturally brings, but also in this case it's that combination of food and tech together, and coming together with the community.”
Watson: “Yeah, so back to embarrassing things that Aaron just learned: I was reading about eggs and you know an unwashed egg from a chicken can just sit on your counter at room temperature - it's either for 30 or 45 days without refrigeration. It's still good to eat and you can prepare it, and cook yourself an egg and that is a traditional example of what you were saying - you can have it sit there and if you don't use it for two weeks that's completely okay. Same thing with the vegetables, and all these concerns about a GMO or about too much fertilizer or pesticides or whatever on the food that we're eating and that being really married to it or being divorced.
Like if you were sitting in your backyard just watching someone spray chemicals all over the food that you're about to eat for weeks and weeks - I don't know if I should be putting that my body so when it's out of sight, out of mind, you don't really consider it. It does seem like there's also a connection there, and you can correct me if I'm wrong - if it's grown locally and it gets to the store quickly and it gets to your home quickly, then we don't even need some of the chemicals and some of the other elements that were required to just make it edible over that period of time. Minimize the amount of rot or things going bad as possible because of the reduction in transportation...”
Austin Webb: “Absolutely. We use no harmful chemicals on our food, and a big part of that is because we're creating this perfect environment. This really takes care of a lot of the pest management you might think of, and we can be very proactive and keep them out as opposed to ‘okay they're here we need to be
thinking about pesticides’ and things like that, so that's a really important part of what we do and it really gets back to that connected experience and part of what we're bringing. At this point, you have over 68% of consumers buying local first, and now less than 18% buying organic first, and the reason is exactly what you just talked about which is, for a while, organic was the attribute to which people could turn to and really say ‘hey I think this is being grown without pesticides - I think this is just better for me.’
People have really come to learn that just because it's organic doesn't mean there's no pesticides, and I swear I used to ask that question, and eighth of ten people used to think organic means no pesticides. Now it is four. It's been very interesting over the last three years to watch that change and so for the same reasons why people would buy organic, they're now buying local for the reasons you stated. You start to know it a little bit more. You can go check it out if you'd like. You can literally, in our case, local used to be much larger in some cases they still try to talk about hundreds of thousands of miles, but you can watch people really say ‘well local’s within my state,’ and then you can start to say ‘hey well this is grown in Braddock,’ and people say ‘okay now this is local - I know the exact neighborhood it's in so now you can actually go see it if you'd like.’
All that allows you to get more connected to it, but local isn't enough, particularly because it's an overused word and so what we're doing is this idea of creating a new era of fresh foods and this new idea of a new connected experience, and so with our product you can know where it was grown, literally, the neighborhood, you can know who grew it. We show that and then we can actually see directly out of the farm - this very specific plot of land that your specific package came from.
What we're really excited about is in the retail environment, for example, being able to right there - you just scan it - you don't have to pull out your phone but you scan it and then you can see those three things and that's something that really changes your mentality of bringing everything kind of in full focus and you start to say you realize - well I want this for everything that I'm consuming. In our belief, it's really sort of that ‘consumer packaged goods’ is the old, and ‘consumer connected goods’ is the new, and that's...”
Watson: “That's a good line.”
Austin Webb: “Thanks and thank you. That’s what we're excited about. That's what all of our folks are hard at work doing right now. Everyone’s walking and I'm doing the talking, which is just part of my job.
That's what we're doing, and it's super-exciting because that's how all of our food should be, particularly fresh food, which we're obviously consuming more and more of. That's why the fresh perimeter rate, fresh produce, fresh meats are driving retail traffic, and also driving our habits in the restaurant. So we're really excited because in the restaurant, for example, we have a brand name salad on the menu. We're able to have people really start to ask and think more about that and again having that information actually there to talk about.
Even more, compared to right now. There's a board in the back corner, and it says here's some local farms, and you kind of never see it. You never think about it. In this case, there's a lot more that you can talk about because that's what we're trying to bring full focus to consumers. It's not just the experience with the food, but it's the experience of how they can access it, cook it, and learn more about it, use it in different ways - all that is part of the connected experience that that Fifth Season is bringing.”
Watson: “So part of this is obviously, as you just mentioned, bringing this to restaurants, and whether it's Kevin Sousa, who's also in Braddock, or other top chefs with that specific type of menu that you want. You’re coming there to know what every little detail is of the experience, versus ‘I just want my taco.’ Who are the other parties that need to be sold into on this vision - so you sold some restaurants, you've sold investors obviously on this vision, but are we talking about major grocers like a Walmart, like a Target, like a Giant Eagle? Who else has to buy into this vision in order for the enterprise to reach the scale that you aspire to?”
Austin Webb: “Totally. I mean any food business today should be an omni-channel business, and so we look at retail food service, which isn't just restaurants. Obviously, there's multiple categories of food service, including corporate catering and cooking large events, and then also direct-to-consumer, because I don't know about you, but having a salad delivered directly to my door, and I could say let's get three of those, and then I've got three lunches already taken care of as busy as I am and as fresh and healthy as I want to eat, it's really great to have simple solutions without compromise. So we're excited for all three of those.
We're talking with a number of retailers, as well as the restaurants, and obviously direct-to-consumers. It makes total sense, and we all want that so that's just a matter of executing and building that out, but yet I mean everyone's really excited about this. Everyone's all in for local clean food, and consumers are really starting to show their evolution toward wanting this experience. When you talk with retailers, they've been excited about vertical farming and the potential for indoor grown produce that's local inside the city for some time, but it's never been at volume and cost that makes sense for them. They need a lot of volume, because obviously we buy as consumers - we buy a lot at the grocery store, so you have to be able to actually give them something that makes a dent in their sourcing, otherwise they've got a little bit, and then it sells out in a day. Then the cost - was it was an issue because you shouldn't have to spend an arm and a leg to get affordable produce, and certainly the retailers don't feel you need to as well, and so it's really exciting to have these conversations where we really change the conversation with them.
They are saying okay wait this is different, and in vertical farming it is finally here - it can finally take off with this company for the season because they're solving these volume and cost issues. They have to, because their consumers are demanding this and obviously for them there's also less spoilage there's less transportation. It is just something that makes sense, and so it's one of those - it's really garnered that kind of traction and momentum because everyone across the the chain, whether you're talking to retailers or the consumers, or you and me- it's something we want and so it's super-exciting that we can bring that. It leads to one other piece -- the way we think a lot, which is we can go and do custom grown produce even on the really high end - we can do things.”
Watson: “Like as a small batch right? So we're actually almost talking like the 3D printing model, where the fat rapid iteration of a product can happen through that kind of small batch type of production.”
Austin Webb: “Yeah that's definitely true, and we can end up connecting with someone like Kevin Sousa right, and we love Kevin. We talked with him multiple times and decided to be joining him in Braddock. We can do something very specific for him that is a much higher premium type product, and at the same time we can go in and so when you just know you want to have a taco and you're like ‘look man I’m just trying to eat on a Tuesday here.mIt's Taco Tuesday for me because I love tacos, but I'm really busy. I don't really have time to go out.’
You're able to just have something that you can really trust and lean on where we sort of done all this hard work. To just say ‘hey just take this cilantro right it's chemical free it's local and if you want to know more about it you totally can.’ So on one day where you're super busy you might just say I just need this, and I know it's the best. You don't have to think about it on that same week on a Saturday where you're going to the store and you're saying you know making a meal, and I'm wanting to do something. You can then start to go down the path to say hey Fifth Season is providing this experience I can go and learn a lot more about it, and I can, for example, say ‘hey I want to use rosemary - I'm not exactly sure I should use it.I'm just used to using it only on Thanksgiving - can I make something and do something different than I had before?’
You can totally do that and you can do all that in the same week, so I think that's what's super exciting, and we can really create affordable produce that you don't have to spend an arm-and-a-leg for, but we can also do the higher premium produce with the same technology. We can dial in different environments and create something that's unique and different for you or for the restaurant you're eating at.”
Watson: “What's incredibly exciting is that I'm really excited just to see it continue to grow and can see what you guys produce. Before we ask our standard last two questions, I want to touch on one more thing because it's uncommon to get someone kind-of in the eye of this storm in the way that you are right now. We talked about the fundraising, we talked about the vision of a company like this, and I know and back to the roots of why I do this show -- I know that there's a lot of people like me or people like me a couple years ago where you know you want to do something big - you know you want to go make your dent on the universe - you want to go have the impact - you want the uncommon results and you know the classic trope to get uncommon results.
It requires uncommon effort, so not in a braggadocious way to consider this me giving you every license to just be candid about the process of a 35-million-dollar-raise, a vertical farm, a team of all sorts of technologists: what light can you shed on to what it takes to do something like what you're doing from a commitment standpoint, from an effort standpoint, because I think it's it's really gonna help other people who aspire to something similar?”
Austin Webb: “It's hard, so that's the first part: accepting that. We have five core values at our company, and unlike at really big company where maybe you kind of look at them and you say oh yeah I remember those and I don't really know if those mean anything, ours are very core and real and true to who we are and we didn't crystallize them until we were already two and a half years old, so only six months ago, did we crystallize these. That is because we wanted these to be born out of how we actually were, where our culture really was, and all of the hard-working folks that we have that kind of created that culture. We wanted to crystallize that later as opposed to something upfront as a bunch of corporate jargon. I'm saying all that because one of our core values is resilience and it's what I say all the time.
There's never an easy win - you have to win them all - it's at the moment you accept that, because like I said when it's hard and you accept that, then you can take a loss, and another loss, and a third loss and take those three compounding losses and still go get that next win that then wipes out all the losses you just got. That idea of adapting to ambiguity and completing the mission no matter what, is a big part of who we are, and it has to be a big part of any entrepreneur that's going to do these things. As you mentioned, for the catch phrase to ‘create uncommon results with uncommon effort,’ so it's a great question because it's just so true and you never really know until you're in it and even when I used to work 80-100 hours a week in investment banking, I thought that you know that was one form of its own type of resilience. In this case, it's another because it's not just the hard hours, but it's also the hard thinking and the critical thinking, and because there's never an easy win - the little stuff takes a lot of good effort too.
You've got to get a lot of small wins and you got to get a lot of big wins, and you just have to use the losses as its own form of resilience and then use your wins as it's also its own form of a minimum resilience, and just keep looking forward to the next piece. Resilience is a big part of any success, and we have a long way to go, so it's not like we are sitting here saying ‘hey cool we've completed just a small part of our mission - great we're done.’
Obviously we know what's still in front of us and the hard vision and mission that we have, so it takes more and more, and so you know we're at today, like I mentioned, coming out of stealth mode, and how exciting and how much momentum we've gained from that. We just have to use that to keep moving forward because there's a lot of hard work left to do.”
Watson: “What's exciting, like I said, is that we're going to be rooting for you, and I know that people are going to want to follow along and learn more and check on all the other exciting announcements that you may have in the future. What digital coordinates can we provide people who want to follow along?”
Austin Webb: “It is www.fifthseasonfresh.com . Go check it out we just launched the website. It shows you how we grow, how we're different, and as opposed to being a black box where we're sort of hiding the technology, where we're really showing what we do, because again it's part of that overall connected piece. Then as we move forward, there'll be more and more around that connected experience and that new era of fresh food for consumers where all of us can look and realize we've never actually eaten fresh food before. Fresh is finally here and that will be coming here in a couple months as we really launched the farm and got it operating, but for now you can really go in and see our technology and see what all of our folks are working really hard on back at the office.”
Watson: “Very exciting. Well I can't wait to taste some leafy greens, and hope that everyone will check out that link. It will be in the show notes wherever you're listening in this podcast right now should be very easy to find with a quick scroll, but before I let you go and get back to work what I want to give you the mic a final time to issue an actionable personal challenge for the audience.”
Austin Webb: “I think the actionable personal challenge that I would do is one that's near and dear to me, which is: no matter how busy you are, try to eat every single meal for one week of fresh food only, so limit as much processed food as you possibly can, and eat fresh food, where you really go and understand where it where it comes from in that mind of connected food. Then see how you feel.”
Watson: “Beautiful I hope that everyone will take the challenge. It's national pizza month, so I might need to wait a bit.”
Austin Webb: “Well I love pizza. I have to say we all have guilty pleasures, and pizza is my favorite food, so I'm with you on that.Yeah maybe wait till after pizza month, and then...”
Watson: “Yeah, and then cycle into the fresh food before the holiday.”
Austin Webb: “There we go.”
Watson: “Perfect thank you so much for doing this.”
Austin Webb: “Thank you so much. It's a real pleasure to be on the show, and I really enjoyed it.”
Watson: “Thank you. We just Went Deep with Austin Webb. I hope everyone out there has a fantastic day.”
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