Alexander Olesen: Raising $8 Million for Self-Contained Vertical Farming – EP. 155

About This Episode:

Alexander Olesen is the CEO & Co-Founder of Babylon Micro-Farms Inc. He’s a social entrepreneur, keynote and TEDx speaker, and urban agriculture expert.

Today we talk about how he’s been building a successful business making produce much more sustainable than conventional methods. We get into the ups and downs of social entrepreneurship, and especially why this is such a timely concept for us all getting access to better food.

Full Audio:

If you enjoy the show, please rate it 5 stars on Apple Podcasts, subscribe, and leave a nice review!


There's a lot more you're missing.

Submit your email address to gain instant access to the rest of this page, including episode highlights with timestamps & original research.


2:35 – “Hydroponic farming for those that don’t know is growing plants in water instead of soil. It’s a way of growing crops 2 to 3 times more quickly using 90% less water, no pesticides or chemicals. It is a much more sustainable and resource efficient way. And it also allows you to grow plants indoors. And so I was introduced to this concept through a project at the University of Virginia where I was studying, and we were basically looking at how to build these farms in refugee camps. And that was the original projects, part of the social entrepreneurship program. And through that I was like, ‘Well, micro farming is possible. You could actually do small scale farms and this could actually help people feed themselves or businesses to support themselves.’ And that was the original insight, you know, now six years ago or seven years ago, and we started looking at like, what would it take to do that here in the US?”

3:24 – “We ended up founding the company to build what we call a remote management platform. So it is an Internet of Things technology that allows us to run these farms remotely and in doing so, make them really easy to use so that people with no green thumb can be successful farmers. So that’s the core technology. And then today we sell modular vertical farms. They’re about the size of a double door refrigerator to food service operation. We work with Ikea, LinkedIn, other places to grow vegetables on site that they can use in their food service operations.”

5:08 – “The industry as a whole is going through a significant growth surge driven by the need for innovation in agriculture around climate change primarily, but also some much more tangible technological development. So LED lights have allowed us to grow crops indoors at a fraction of the energy usage. That is a significant step forward. That’s accelerating the use of sensors and data processing as well as to do larger scale farms. And it’s also allowed new models like what we do. And so the combination of those two things are just making vertical farming more and more – indoor farming broadly – more in demand.”

6:10 – “Across food service the standard is local. Farm to table is no longer the kind of high-end restaurant it is the standard that is the expectation that’s being set. However, it’s very hard for businesses and communities to convey that and so the micro farms help kind of serve an experiential need there. But we also grow high volumes of produce. Like we have a lot of communities that rely on the microfarm to provide all of their culinary hubs or all of their salad greens. That’s exciting for us from a self-sufficiency point of view. But where we see a lot of impact, especially at senior living homes, we have them doing therapy and activities, we have hospitals using it for long-term care. We also work with Goodwill and other nonprofits for workforce development, and that’s basically training people how to grow their own food and then how to make a meal with it. And so I think the farms really kind of serve as a tool there to both educate and inspire the communities that they serve with how to actually grow your own food and what to do with it once you’ve harvested it.”

7:55 – (Ross) “One of the most interesting things that I have seen of this field is hospitals and like you said, senior care, because knowing, you know, all of my grandparents have now died, but they all spent their later years in either a hospital or a hospice. And knowing that the quality of the food there, I mean, it’s just objectively terrible. And I’m talking about multiple different states, multiple different areas, even different countries. I’ve witnessed people and systems, and the food quality that awaits you in our current system when you get to that stage of your life is abysmal. I’m talking about horrible stuff, processed foods, nothing healthy, nothing natural.”

8:44 – “There is a combination of education both on the operator and the consumer side and then also just some very real constraints around budget. A lot of the places they are dealing with, whatever they can get that has a long shelf life and is easy to make, right? That’s why you have fast food…these are constraints that people are dealing with. It’s like, does it is it easy and is it cheap? And that’s the primary kind of driver for a lot of people, unfortunately. In the hospitals we work with that are willing to allocate budget towards kind of healthier food and sourcing, we generally see that its chefs and the operators there are educated in the fact that food is medicine and they’re pushing that agenda. And I think that is a huge trend that is everywhere now and increasingly so and so we benefit from that. But yeah, it really relies on the hospital itself or the chefs and the operators there to be like, ‘No food is medicine and we’re going to prioritize nutrition as part of our recovery and programming within the hospital.”

9:47 – (Ross) “I was in a hospital relatively recently visiting a friend of mine and I say, ‘hey, I want some coffee. What are my options here?’ Well, they give you a Styrofoam microwave cup of instant coffee and you think, ‘this is just horrible on so many levels. Is this really the best we can do?’ And the irony of that you’re supposed to treat sick people with this. It’s just, it feels so wrong to me in those types of environments, especially. Whereas if you’re fully healthy, well, hey, you can get away with putting some harmful chemicals in your body for a little while, but when you’re already sick or immunocompromised, the idea that you are feeding yourself garbage, it just seems to be adding insult to injury, in my opinion.”

12:59 – “I actually think that the attitudes are shifting. Certainly when I look at like a lot of my contemporaries in the UK or the US, people are putting society first, right? And the triple bottom line is like, what was it, planet, profit and purpose, right? And so – or people, planet and profit and so really balancing those three things. If you think of a sustainable company, you’re not really – it’s not a zero sum game, right? And in the traditional sense, I think those companies, it seems antiquated to not be trying to reallocate some portion of your company towards supporting those three things. So yeah, I think it’s really just the way things are going.”

23:04 – “If you look at the system today in the US, for lettuce alone, it’s shipped, 95% of it’s shipped from a couple of counties in California to the West Coast, you’re looking at 50+ percent wastage. It’s hugely inefficient and you’re ultimately leading to a worse product for consumers. And that’s a luxury in the US, in the Western world, that you can do that. But in a lot of parts of the world, they’re living, the food supply chain is very, very fragile. And so crop failures can lead to mass famine. I don’t know where indoor farming fits in that, in solving that, but I think creating systems that are resilient and sustainable is the way things are moving. And it has to accelerate. And creating tools like what we do is one of many parts of that.”

24:21 – “It doesn’t matter what your politics are; the climate’s changing, and that has a wide range of effects, right? It could be more rain, it could be less rain, it could be storms, you name it. But either way things that are fragile, like the plants outside that we rely on to eat, need to be looked after. And I think that is where the need for innovation comes in, right? And that climate tech, broadly of which controlled environment ag is one small piece of the puzzle, is one of the tools available. And I think that’s where why you’re seeing a lot of acceleration in that to hopefully create a future where everyone can have a roof over their head and healthy food in front of them.”

25:56 – “[IKEA], they are a current partner and they have food service operations in all of their stores. You can go and get your Swedish meatballs and if you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina, you can go and get some Swedish meatballs with dill sprinkled on it from a micro-farm. And that’s a new initiative that we’re testing with them that I hope to expand. But yeah, they’re looking at it very much from a sustainability angle, like how can they be self-sufficient in some of their herbs and other ingredients? Could they even grow them on site? And that’s where we come in.”

30:55 – (Ross) “And you know, we talk about grocery stores and many movies and documentaries have been made on the idea of, ‘Oh, how far does it take a banana to get to you in your local grocery store? Why don’t grocery stores just implement this? Why doesn’t every grocery store make all of this type of thing in the store? Why does it ever come from somewhere else?”

(Alexander) “They can and they will. That is the future. It’s quite popular in Europe and Asia at the moment. Units very similar to ours. There are some some challenges around the business model and economics and all that stuff we’re really working to address, but that is part of the future is the indoor farms being kind of co-located with distribution centers and grocery stores.”

31:35 – (Ross) “That drives me crazy. You’ve got this row of produce and it’s all – especially here again, I know that Europe is a little bit better – but here it’s all in this very thick, single-use plastic packaging. You can buy spinach, you can buy lettuce, and because we’re all worried about salmonella and other diseases, it’s in a very thick plastic tub, which is just ridiculous. And the idea that you take this out and you throw that away instantly, it just all feels so horrible, especially knowing that it’s been shipped in from somewhere else. So why not just replace all of that with stuff that’s just grown in the store with no packaging whatsoever and then that’s just solved?”

33:50 – “With regards to indoor farming, I think bigger is not always better. And that actually tailored solutions for businesses, communities can have a lot of impact and actually growing some of your food in a way that actually touches all of your community can have an outsized impact on the overall consumption. So we see this, a small micro farming initiative at a university, you can actually drive plant-based food consumption and salad green consumption across all their different menu items. And I think that’s so exciting for people to realise that these small initiatives can have a significant impact. And hopefully that’s something that resonates with people to explore doing this, whether that’s in their own community or in their own business.”

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Scroll to Top