On Starting A Vertical Farming Business

Published: August 24th, 2019
David Rosenberg
Founder, AeroFarms
from New Jersey, USA
started January 2017
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
270 days
best tools
Google Drive, Skype, Groupon
pros & cons
24 Pros & Cons
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Discover what books David recommends to grow your business!
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Hi, I’m David Rosenberg and I co-founded and lead AeroFarms. We are the world leader in vertical farming and proudly based out of Newark, New Jersey. Today, we operate commercially out of our 70,000 square foot facility. This is the world’s largest vertical farm based on annual growing capacity (up to two million pounds per year).

Today, we focus on planting, growing, and harvesting baby leafy greens, which we sell to food service and retail. To list a few of our many customers, these include world-renowned chef Marcus Samuellson, Whole Foods, and ShopRite. If you’re interested in our products, we have a range of products that you can buy locally in New Jersey or order online through FreshDirect.

We are up to 390 times as productive as conventional farms while our products are grown using up to 95% less water than conventional crops, zero pesticides, and zero soil.



What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

In my second job out of college, I was working with my best friend Matt Andresen who lead a company called Island. Island was one of the first ECM companies and certainly the largest, and they disrupted how stocks were traded.

Seeing Matt disrupt an entire industry really inspired me to become an entrepreneur, and I set my career on such a path. Since then, I have worked at four change-the-world, institutionally-backed start-ups/hyper-growth companies. Amongst those, AeroFarms is now the second one that I have co-founded and lead.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

The first company that I co-founded and lead was Hycrete. For a brief overview, thiswas a nanotechnology company that focused on water-proofing porous concrete structures. We became the first company to receive ‘Cradle-to-Cradle Gold’ certification for our regenerative technology and lack of waste products. During my time there, I reinforced old and picked up new skills that have been truly valuable to my career. For the first two years, I was essentially by myself trying to create this nanotech company. During this time, resilience was a key quality that kept me and the business going forward. I kept persevering until I had my first major breakthrough. To accomplish that, I have to credit the really good mentors supporting me. Reaching out to them for advice and listening to their thoughts and feedback not only then but also now has propelled my career and companies forward.

On that note, I learned that to grow my own companies, I had to be surrounded by great people. I had my mentors, and I also sought to develop a team of highly capable problem solvers. During the hiring process, I tend to prioritize high intellectual problem-solving capacity over experience. In start-ups, one is not hiring for the problem immediately at hand, but rather looking for someone who can solve multiple and different problems. With my teams, I set priorities, identify what problems there are to solve, and make sure we have our people in the right positions with the right resources. It is not and should not be only a top-down approach. I highly encourage a culture of challenging assumptions. It is important to ask the right questions and to have engaging, respectful dialogue in order to arrive at the right conclusion. Challenging assumptions should come not only from managers but also from their reports who are often the first to identify issues and opportunities.

Continuing with people, it is crucial as an entrepreneur to bring in the right investors who can support your long-term goals and vision. Early on, I took a check of institutional capital. This brings a level of professionalism and resources necessary to an entrepreneur. Additionally, I learned fast how to raise the funds themselves and to then take these funds and apply them to scale fast.

Circling back now to my career path, I joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security. Through my membership, I learned that 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture and approximately 70% of freshwater pollution comes from agriculture. To solve water security, I realized that agriculture needed to be dramatically transformed. From then on, my fight against water turned into a fight for water. This new interest became one that ultimately led me to AeroFarms.

AeroFarms was originally founded as GreatVeggies in 2004 by Cornell professor and fellow co-founder Ed Harwood. Ed’s company later merged with Just Greens, which was founded by myself and my old friend and fencing buddy Marc Oshima, fellow co-founder and our Chief Marketing Officer. Since 2011, we have scaled commercially, constructed nine farms, and have developed an incredible team of over 140 members.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

As of today, we have never been more optimistic about the future. We are hitting a lot of our long-term business KPIs, and we have never performed better.

We are truly proud of what we have accomplished thus far. We have individual facilities dedicated to prototyping, R&D, and commercial operations. Through our commercial operations, we have proven to ourselves that we can scale our business. In addition to our commercial goals, we have been able to contribute to our community and social goals. We have a school farm at Philips Charter Academy, which has generated great impact for the students. They are able to plant, grow, and harvest their own greens all while developing healthier eating habits through eating their very own greens.

For future goals, we are always evaluating areas in which to construct new facilities. At the same time, we are continuously growing new crops to find ones with positive capital and operating expenses in order to deliver positive IRRs.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One failure I’ve had in my previous companies is making sure we had the right investors and capital for the process and business. When working on a change-the-world solution that requires significant time and effort, one needs patient capital. To find the right investors, I learned to ask the right questions to ensure that there’s alignment and to talk to investors’ references in the same way that investors talk to companies’ references.

The second valuable learning in my career is achieving true alignment. Of course, one always seeks business alignment to ensure that the company has common goals and is on track to meet them. Complementing business alignment is an alignment on culture. Core to a team’s success is agreeing on the Mission, Vision, and Principles that they seek to embody. At AeroFarms, we both hire for culture and we regularly involve team members on discussions around current team dynamics and culture.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shared calendars, while a common tool in today’s workplace, are extremely valuable in coordinating our team’s schedules. This has become even more valuable as we have expanded to over 140 team members.

The Dropbox app or any comparable cloud storage app is a great resource to have on your phone. When traveling or away from your laptop, you can easily access files from Word documents to full PowerPoint presentations. You can also easily share these with other team members with just a few commands.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Measure What Matters by John Doerr. We actually purchased copies of this book to company managers when we began adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). It provides great insights on a truly effective goal-setting system that encourages quantifiable processes and both transparency and collaboration between all levels and departments.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The first piece of advice I have for other entrepreneurs is to understand that projects and processes typically take longer and can cost more money than one initially expected. One should be mentally prepared for these instances and be able to respond appropriately. When issues arise, problem-solving and developing a clear solution are crucial to keeping projects on track.

The second piece of advice I have is geared towards your personal relationships. One should make sure that the risk profiles of both you and your partner are aligned. Just as important, make sure that there is strong, clear communication between both of you. When starting a business, you may be willing to invest more money into a new project than your partner is, all while having a net income loss. As a result, there may be tensions between the two of you. Again, I highly encourage alignment and communication to ease the tensions resulting from any differences.

The last piece of advice is reemphasizing a point I made earlier. From the start of my career as an entrepreneur, I have been fortunate to have incredible mentors to guide me along the right path. Maintain such relationships, reach out for advice when you think you need it, and listen to their thoughts and suggestions.

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start a vertical farming business? Learn more ➜