UW Grad’s Food Production Vision Achieves New Level of Success | News

April 8, 2022

Plenty Inc.’s new 95,000 square foot vertical farm in Compton, Calif., uses technology developed at UW by Nate Storey when he was a graduate student. When it opens, it will be the most productive vertical indoor farm in the world. (Plenty Inc. Photo)

Ten years ago, Nate Storey was about to complete a doctorate. in Agronomy from the University of Wyoming while working to develop a new business with the audacious goal of revolutionizing the way produce is grown and sold. He and a partner had just won the UW College of Business entrepreneurship competition, receiving $12,500 to help start their business and a year of free business consulting services and incubator space. UW companies.

Today, Storey is the chief scientific officer of Silicon Valley startup Plenty Inc., which acquired his company, Bright Agrotech, in 2017. Plenty will soon open the world’s most successful vertical indoor farm in Compton, California. step for a new industry that is gaining increasing attention for its ability to provide high quality produce year-round using relatively small amounts of water and land, and without the use of pesticides. Recently, Walmart announced that it had taken a stake in Plenty, becoming the first major US retailer to significantly invest in indoor vertical farming to bring fresher produce to its stores.

It’s been an incredible ten-year journey for Storey, who still lives with her family in Laramie while frequently traveling to California for work. He says his success shows that a great idea, early support, hard work, perseverance, and a willingness to learn and adapt enable UW graduates to realize their boldest ambitions.

“When we entered the first $10,000 contest, we didn’t even really have a business at the time — just a concept with work behind it,” Storey explains. “Over the next two years, we built a business and took a crash course in how businesses work, setup, managing people, taxes, overhead, and compliance — all the work that comes with starting a business. ‘a company. . Since then, a lot has happened. ”

It certainly is.

Take off from the ground

Bright Agrotech emerged from UW’s business incubator in 2015 and established an indoor farm in Laramie, using vertical towers and other technologies that Storey developed and patented under license with the university. The company grew rapidly, generating several million dollars in annual revenue and employing several dozen people.

“I began to realize that Bright Agrotech was unable to have the impact I was hoping for on the food supply,” Storey says. “I was thinking about this problem when I met some guys from California who said they had the same idea for a food production company and they liked our technology. They said, ‘Why not join us? ‘

So Storey joined Matt Barnard and Jack Oslan to co-found Plenty, selling Bright Agrotech to partner Chris Michael. Subsequently, Bright Agrotech’s acquisition by Plenty fell back on Storey’s patents and original equipment “to consolidate this technology”.

The Laramie operation remains and serves as Plenty’s research and development farm, employing approximately 80 people. Michael is now Plenty’s Senior Director of Internal Communications.

head shot of a man

Nate’s story

It took a lot more work at Laramie and the flagship Plenty Farm in South San Francisco to take Bright Agrotech’s technology and develop it for large-scale application.

“We’ve had great traction with Plenty, but we’ve had some difficult technical issues to resolve, and it’s complex from a business perspective as well,” Storey says. “No one in the world had a vision for these things. Developing that vision required contact with the laws of physics, markets and customers.

“Overall, the bones of Bright Agrotech are still there. We started this quest to bring fresh and healthy local food to everyone. We thought we knew how to do it,” he adds. “The technologies and methodologies are the same, but the approaches have changed in response to the things we’ve learned in the process. We were generally right; what has changed over the past decade is the best approach to doing this.

“A giant learning experience”

Storey describes the past 10 years as exhausting – “a decade of no sleep, hundred-hour work weeks, selling and pitching”.

“It required me to learn a lot of things – finance, fundraising, markets and politics – things I didn’t envision at first. It was just one giant learning experience . It’s the nature of building this stuff,” he says. “I’ve been able to occupy a unique position throughout this journey. I’m not a business major. I’m not a graduate Stanford or a lot of the things people think you have to be to be successful in tech. Turns out you don’t have to be so smart: you just have to have good ideas, be prepared to work very hard and not sleep much.

Plenty has raised nearly $1 billion for its next steps, and the first step is monumental: opening the 95,000-square-foot indoor farm in Compton, which is set to ship its first products in October to Walmart stores in California.

“This is by far the largest and most automated indoor farm in the world,” says Storey. “It contains a lot of the technology that we have worked very hard to develop at Plenty, a lot of the technology that represents the first steps towards creating a whole new form of farming. It’s something that excites us all, even though we’re still in the rush and chaos of building it. It’s a lot of amazing work by a lot of amazing people.

Plenty says its vertical farm towers are designed to grow multiple crops on a single platform in a building the size of a big-box retail store. Its systems include vertical plant towers, LED lighting and robots to plant, nurture and harvest crops – using 1% of the land an outdoor farm needs while providing 150 to 350 times more food. per acre. Vertical farms are meant to complement, but not replace, traditional farming practices while helping to increase food supply in a sustainable way.

What is the ultimate goal of the business?

“Plenty is going to build many of these farms. These farms are very sophisticated assets that create jobs in communities,” says Storey. “We are going to grow quite significantly over the next few years to become a global agricultural production and technology company. As we grow, add new cultures and invest in improving technology, we will also see growth in our science team at Laramie.

Incubate success

Storey’s success is exactly what UW had in mind when it launched the Wyoming Technology Business Center, now IMPACT 307, said Fred Schmechel, acting director of the incubator program. The university is stepping up its efforts to boost startups with the launch of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership and the Wyoming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, in collaboration with community colleges across the state, the Wyoming Business Council and others. Plans call for IMPACT 307 incubators to be established in communities across the state, in addition to existing ones in Laramie, Casper, Cheyenne and Sheridan.

man in a greenhouse with vertical plant towers

In this February 2012 photo, Nate Storey examines lettuce growing in his startup’s patented vertical towers inside a UW greenhouse. Today, he’s the chief scientific officer of Silicon Valley startup Plenty Inc., which will soon open the world’s most successful vertical indoor farm in Compton, California. (UW Photo)

“Nate’s story is a great example of how the university helps students and faculty develop ideas and then bring them to market,” says Schmechel. “His story is particularly impressive, but a number of our incubator clients have gone on to become successful businesses in the state and beyond as well.”

Storey credits former UW business advisors Christine Langley and the late Jon Benson for helping him bring his patented technology to market and overcome the challenges of starting a business.

“I always tell people that Christine is the most influential person in my life, from a business mentoring perspective. I will forever be indebted to him – Jon Benson too,” Storey said. “They were incredibly patient and wise. I’m super grateful.

What advice does he have for UW students who aspire to make their mark, as he has, in places like Silicon Valley?

“If you grow up in Wyoming and travel to a place like Silicon Valley or Los Angeles, you’ll be faced with a series of questions that you have to ask yourself, like, ‘Who am I? Who am I compared to the people around me? says Storey, who graduated from high school in Cheyenne. “It’s a challenge when you go to a place like Silicon Valley. There are a lot of smart people out there who know what they’re doing and have experience that you don’t have. You need to be honest about what you know and don’t know, and then be willing to learn. Nevertheless, you can be sure that the education and things you learned at UW are applicable elsewhere and that you are as smart as anyone else. I would have liked to be more confident at the start.

The success of Bright Agrotech and Plenty, with its continued presence in Laramie, shows the potential for further economic progress in Wyoming, he adds, highlighting the need for affordable housing for the workforce.

“We are building a company that is the world leader in this area of ​​high technology. Few companies in Wyoming can say that,” he says. “Laramie and Wyoming are in a special position. The state will grow. It can grow chaotically, or we can embrace growth, plan ahead, and prepare the state for its next phase of economic growth and evolution. If we do it right, the next decade can be even better than the last. »

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