By Charles Platkin PhD, JD, MPH
I joke that I went to university (in my native UK) without an email address – because essentially they didn’t exist for normal people – and the day I left (with a PhD in AI) I started a web company. That was all in the mid-90s. So I’ve been in tech for a while now.
When I moved to the US, I met Kimbal Musk and joined him at a new social media analytics tech company called OneRiot. After a skiing accident, Kimbal decided to focus full-time on The Kitchen and his personal mission of bringing real food to everyone. That’s when I became CEO of OneRiot which was then acquired by Walmart in 2011 and I ended up running mobile commerce for international markets. I got curious about food systems there – working with huge data sets of the groceries people were buying across the globe, and researching where those foods were being grown. I began to visualize food being shipped across the world before consumers bought it. It’s well known that the average apple you buy in a US supermarket has been traveling for 9 months and is coated in wax to stop it decomposing. Meanwhile, the average tomato today travels 1,800 miles to get from farm to table. That is industrial food.
Later I became CEO of an NYC photo editing app called Aviary, but couldn’t get this map of the industrial food system out of my head. When Aviary was acquired by Adobe, I re-joined Kimbal at the Kitchen we started developing the idea for Square Roots. What we saw was that millions of people – especially those in our biggest cities – were at the mercy of industrial food. This is high calorie, low nutrient food, shipped in from thousands of miles away. It leaves people disconnected from their food and the people who grow it. At the same time, we also saw people were losing trust in their current food system and wanted what we call “real food”. Essentially, this is local food – where you know your farmer. The industrial food system is not going to solve this problem. Instead, we felt this presented an extraordinary opportunity for a new generation of leaders – those who understand urban agriculture, community, and the power of real, local food. So we set up Square Roots as a platform to empower the next generation of farmers to become leaders in this real food revolution.
Our technology is all based on our ‘farmer-first’ platform that surrounds our farmers with data, insights, and tools, so they can grow non-GMO, pesticide-free, delicious food, all year round.
Throughout our farms are a series of climate sensors that capture thousands of data points per day. Because we grow in a completely closed environment, we have full control over each climate parameter—from CO2 in the air to the number of hours of light. We research the best natural climate for a certain variety of plant, recreate it inside the farm, and grow the best tasting produce, 365 days a year.
The farms can maintain a perfect climate for the plants on its own, but it has also been designed to work in harmony with our farmers. Our proprietary software provides farmers with things like expert assistance and crop scheduling, making the daily workflow in the farms as easy as possible.
The average age of the American farmer is 58 years old. If we’re going to change the food system, we need to create more pathways for young people to launch successful careers in farming.
That’s why we set up the Square Roots Next-Gen Farmer Training Program—to enable and empower the next generation of leaders in indoor urban farming and bring fresh, locally-grown food to ever-increasing populations in cities.
Our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program puts farmers at the forefront of the indoor urban agriculture industry. No previous farming experience is necessary to apply — just the passion and entrepreneurial spirit to jump in and start learning.
Next-Gen farmers are full-time employees of the Square Roots team. Similar to traditional farmer apprenticeships, farm skills are learned through both curriculum and hands-on training. As a commercial production farm, our farmers grow to meet the demand for Square Roots customers. Our intuitive technology and experienced team combine to help our farmers become the best indoor urban farmers they can be.
Throughout the year, additional programmed lectures, workshops, and more cover a wide range of topics—from integrated pest management practices to real food entrepreneurship frameworks. Our mission is to empower the next generation of leaders, so this is a diverse and full program that touches many aspects of the indoor farming industry and beyond. The opportunities in front of successful alumnae/i are endless.
By 2050 we will have a population of 10 billion and 70% of that will live in urban areas. NYC is a template for what those future cities will look like. As the song goes, “if we can make it there, we’ll make it anyway.” Plus, there’s a ton of great talent here, especially for urban farming. Including our Head of Programming, Ashley Rafalow who named 40 under 40 for rising stars in food policy and all the amazing next-gen farmers we are able to recruit.
I think it has too. I’m not a policy person, so I wouldn’t pretend to be able to give a general answer. However, some of the things we do at Square Roots are host tours to help inspire the next generation and build farms in schools and at Marcy Houses next door. Basically getting people connected with their local farm and farmer. That’s the first spark.
Make sure your company is working towards a clear and big mission that will make a real impact.
Gets you out of bed, even on the toughest days, remembering there’s a bigger reason.
Helps everyone on the team have clarity on what’s important, so everyone can move faster and get more done.
Lots of other brilliant people want to make the world a better place and will open up incredibly interesting opportunities for you if that’s genuinely what you are trying to do.
Failure is not only OK, it should be embraced as a learning opportunity. As long as you learn the lessons, it will help you come back stronger and to do things better next time. I think that was a “hard” lesson to learn only in as much as in my native UK “failure”, culturally, was something to be avoided because it would be seen as embarrassing and negative. Only when I moved to the US in the early 00’s did I see that it could be embraced as a very powerful force if taken from a longer term view. It’s very liberating and empowering – and I guess that’s why I’m still here! (Although, to be fair, the UK has got much more comfortable with this concept in the 15 years since I left and is much more comfortable with being entrepreneurial now).