SAN JOSE, Calif. – You’ll forgive the Bertram brothers if their Silicon Valley elevator pitch is as fast-paced as a doubles match. After all, they moved from Melbourne, Australia, to the United States to play collegiate tennis, then developed a love for engineering and robotics – and a lofty goal to meet the world’s nutritional needs.
Less than a decade after arriving in California, they co-founded OnePointOne, an agricultural technology company, and Willo, their direct-to-consumer health and lifestyle brand.
Their entrepreneurial “garage” is a two-story-tall indoor vertical farm in San Jose, California, where we met up with CEO Samuel (a Santa Clara University graduate) and Chief Technology Officer John (Westmont College, Technical University of Munich). After checking out the technology, gawking at the hundreds of red mizuna plants carefully nurtured by growers, engineers and robots, and nibbling on just-harvested, state-of-the-art basil, it was time to ask some questions.
Q: How did you two hit upon this idea for a vertical farming start-up?
Sam: There are 1.1 billion people that began this millennium malnourished. Think about that number for a moment. Galvanized by its magnitude, John and I named our vertical farming company OnePointOne, or OPO, as a constant reminder of what we are aiming to solve. Compounding the problem: Poor nutrition kills more people in the USA than anything else, including cigarettes. Plants have always been, and will continue to be, the solution to the problem of malnourishment and diet-related disease. Our technology – through production and plant research – intends to solve these problems.
Willo is the first revolutionary step in this direction. It is the direct-to-consumer brand of our company. By allowing you to configure and control what you grow in your Willo Farm Plot, we can work together to personalize your nutrition, and use plant-based food as the primary tool for preventative medicine that it has always been.
Q: How does Willo’s OnePointOne technology differ from other indoor farming methods?
John: Willo’s high-performance indoor farming technology is different from any other indoor or outdoor farm. We use LED lights to supplant the sun, we use a nutrient-rich mist to replace the soil, and a clean-room environment to keep the plants safe, comfortable and away from the dangers of the outdoors. We are the only organization in the world to grow plants out of tall vertical towers using aeroponics (which is a form of hydroponics using a nutrient-rich mist). And we use fleet robotics to perform many of the functions inside of our farm – everything from plant seeding, plant movement and plant inspection.
Q: An early client of yours is chef David Kinch’s new Mentone restaurant in Aptos. He calls basil the “spirit animal” for that Cal-Mediterranean concept. So you’ve got a three-Michelin-starred chef who wants high-quality basil year-round. No pressure there! How did you develop a basil that meets his standards?
Sam: Chef Kinch offered us a challenge to replicate the quality of a specific basil variety grown in Pra, Italy. Through many months of varying the size, shape, taste and texture of the basil, we arrived at precisely the product he was looking for. Now we are the sole supplier of Ligurian Genovese basil to his restaurant.
Funnily enough, now that we have the “recipe” to grow Mentone’s basil, the pressure is off. Since we control the plant’s experience so closely, the replicability and consistency of the product is guaranteed.
Q: Are there nutritional studies that have compared vegetables and herbs grown this way with those grown conventionally outdoors in soil?
Sam: Yes, and we are in the process of compiling an extensive study on Willo’s produce in comparison to outdoor-grown produce. What I can say is that organic farms use pesticides and often contain heavy metals. Willo’s produce never will.
To be clear, conventionally and “organically” grown produce is still far better for you than almost any other food, and the farmers/workers that grow it for you are modern-day superstars. The problem is one of sustainability. Massive consumption of water, large-scale contamination of water, soil degradation and pesticide poisoning are all very serious problems that Willo’s farming technique eliminates.
Q: How do you mitigate the effects of the agricultural job losses this technology creates?
John: In every facility that Willo builds, there will be a host of new employment opportunities for a wide variety of skill sets – growers, engineers, scientists and operators. These facilities are set to create jobs in each location we build, not eliminate them. Indoor farming is the last thing farmers and their laborers have to worry about. Without our technology, there is already a shortage of workers and an average age of 57. Willo ensures that in the midst of these statistics, consumers will continue to receive access to fresh produce.
Q: You’re now starting to grow produce for the public. How does this membership work and what will customers receive?
Sam: You get to subscribe directly to Willo’s Farm and claim a Farm Plot of your own. You’ll first receive a home-delivered Welcome Box filled with our first generation of crops; 5 oz. kale, 5 oz. mizuna, 5 oz. protein crunch, 5 oz. microgreens and a 5 oz. salad mix of the combination of products. Within seven days you’ll be given the opportunity to configure your farm with the crops you enjoy most or to continue with the Welcome Box farm configuration. Depending on your subscription, Willo delivers these five 5 oz. packages weekly or bi-monthly directly to your door.
Willo is currently developing an app to connect you directly to your Farm Plot. There, you’ll be able to watch your plants grow through time-lapse imagery, add new crops to your Farm Plot, trade Farm Plots with your neighbors and donate Farm Plots to Willo’s charitable partners among many other things.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.