Sonia Lo of Sensei Ag on the Future Food Show
Sonia Lo joins the Sensei Ag team with over 32 years of combined agriculture, technology and business experience. Ms. Lo began her career in technology with a UK media conglomerate. She then went on to build her first tech venture as CEO of eZoka Group, a UK-based internet startup that was sold in 2002. Following eZoka, Ms. Lo founded and served as Managing Director of Chalsys LLP, an advisory and direct investment firm which has invested over $120 million in 15 global growth stage companies. From Chalsys, she became the Director of Localization and Global Content for Google, Inc.
Most recently, prior to Sensei Ag, Ms. Lo was CEO of Crop One Holdings, Inc., a vertical farming company that owns FreshBox Farms in Millis, MA and a joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering in Dubai which building one of the world’s largest vertical farms with an anticipated output of three tons per day. Ms. Lo earned her BA in Political Science from Stanford University and an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School. She also holds Professional Chef and Pastry Qualifications from London and City College and has completed certifications in Green Supply Chain Management and Zero Energy Architecture.
This episode is sponsored by the Black & Veatch NextGen Ag Team. Learn more about Black and Veatch at www.bv.com.
Listen to this podcast on your favorite streaming service.
Thanks for joining us on the cultured meat and future food show. This episode is sponsored by the Black and Veatch Next Gen Ag team. Learn more about Black and Veatch www.bv.com. We’re excited to have Sonia Lo of Sensei Ag on this episode,.Sonia Lo joins the Sensei Ag team with over 32 years of combined agriculture, technology, and business experience. Ms. Lo began her career in technology with a UK media conglomerate. She then went on to build her first tech venture as CEO of eZoka group, a UK based internet startup that was sold 2002, following eZoka Ms. Lo founded and served as managing director of Chalsys LLP: an advisory and direct investment firm, which has invested over $120 million in 15 global growth stage companies from Chalsys. She became the director of localization and global content for Googling. Most recently, prior to Sensei Ag, Ms. Lo was the CEO of Crop One Holdings, Inc., a vertical farming company that owns fresh box farms in Millis, Massachusetts, and a joint venture with Emirates flight catering in Dubai, which is building one of the world’s largest vertical farms with an anticipated output of three tons per day. Ms. Lo earned her BA in political science from Stanford university and an MBA with distinction from Harvard business school. She also holds professional chef and pastry qualifications for London and City College and has completed certifications in green supply chain management and zero energy architecture. Sensei Ag is a market changing ag tech company on a mission to solve global gaps and inconsistencies in nutrition, food safety, and food security through the transformative power of data, guided by the income parable capabilities and insights of its founders, technology, entrepreneur, and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and esteemed physician and scientist: Dr. David Agus. They design, develop, and deploy cutting edge agricultural technologies to build a better, more stable food supply that is capable of feeding our entire world nutritionally relevant, delicious, and affordable meals. Sensei Ag is the present and future of farming, fostering agricultural innovations that will improve and support human health and wellness for decades to come. Sensei Ag, driven by data grounded in science, focused on wellbeing, learn more about Sensei Ag, innovation and agriculture by visiting www.sensei.aig that’s sensei.ag. I had a wonderful time speaking with Sonia Lo, let’s jump right in. Sonia, I’d like to welcome you to the future food show.
Thank you so much for having me, Alex,
Sonia, tell us about your background and really the idea behind Sensei Ag.
So I like to describe myself as the world’s unlikeliest lady farmer, because I came into indoor growing because I’d invested in a venture and then ended up leaning into it because the entrepreneur that had started the venture didn’t take it very far. And then I found myself running the venture and my background is mostly an investment in technology. I grew up all over the world and I came to Sensei Ag because the founders are of course extraordinary people, Larry Ellison and Dr. David Agus. And they really have a transformative vision for human wellness. And particularly our goal is to grow the world’s most nutritious and, from a human wellness perspective, valuable produce, but also to create actionable data for other farmers from our growing experience.
Great. And I was reading up on the bios on the website and I saw that you have a black belt in Tae-Kwon Do as well. Is that right?
Yes. Many years ago, I transitioned to yoga. Now that I’m older and fatter.
We’re talking about farming. I want to quickly just touch on vertical farming and I’d love to get your thoughts on whether you think vertical farming will be something that is more common in the future, because I feel like we’re actually not seeing that many vertical farms. Any thoughts on that?
So on one hand, we’re seeing a lot of vertical farms, right? Because I think a cost of constructing a vertical farm has come down in a pretty linear fashion because the cost of inputs to vertical farms have also come down. I think that the venture capital investment into vertical farms is both a great boon and a constraint. And my personal belief is that these need to be project finance, where the assets, therefore cash flowing as opposed to venture stage assets, and the industry isn’t quite there yet because of the unit economics are not yet mature, but I do think that vertical farming is here to stay. I think it will continue to grow and its biggest barriers will be the availability or the creation of a capital pool that will make these things as financeable as a John Deere tractor and the, again, the continuing decrease in cost of the inputs into vertical farms.
Do you think that traditional farmers might consider building a structure and have a vertical farm in the future? Do you think that there will be a transition there?
Oh, I certainly think that vertical farming will be complimentary to open field growing, and we’ve already had lengthy conversations with people in Salinas, for example. I was just at a major agricultural university a couple of days ago and they’ve been mapping the change in climate and we know that certain cultivars, for example, in pistachios just simply won’t grow anymore. So if we want to have diversity of cultivar selection, if we want to have the same tastes and textures and aromas that we have had from open field growing, I think open field farmers definitely believe that they have to have indoor growing as a compliment to what they’re doing.
My dad actually has a small five acre organic open field farm in Hollister just right down the road.
I know exactly where that is. Yeah.
And it’s really big farms are all around that area. So it will be very exciting to see vertical farms, and to your point about the climate changing, that’s going to be a huge factor. So where does data and science come into play from an agricultural perspective? Because if we can really achieve 90% less water, 10 times more produce, why has not this already become the standard?
Again, I think that a lot of it has to do with the capital formation around the industry thus far, which is that it has been venture led, no venture capital is not readily accessible to the average farmer. And it’s again, no surprise that most of the venture finance vertical farms have been led by people who are familiar with the venture industry. They tend to be former tech entrepreneurs and that Silicon Valley bros and Patagonia vests that continues to be the financeable venture backed model. And so I think that if you are a startup farmer, that’s hard to gain access to that sort of elite financial infrastructure. I think that will change again, as more and more of these farms come to maturity, their unit economics mature, and the data about how these farms actually work will become more readily available.
What will this technology mean for the global food system and how long will it take us to get there? And is funding the biggest blocker here?
I don’t think funding is the biggest blocker, and I do my colleagues and venture capital disservice, right? I think the risk that they’re taking is phenomenal and I’m very grateful that they are taking those risks. I think that there has to be an ecosystem around any transformative industry. If you look at distributed solar, it took seven years before there was a distributed solar, a financial model that could actually support it. Then you need all of the attendant infrastructure. I think that in the next three to five years, I would hope that indoor growing is capable of feeding the top three Quintiles of the world and employing the bottom two. And then over the next eight to 10 years that we would feed everybody. And that is a massive cost reduction curve, but it also means that the attendant energy infrastructure, clean energy, reliable energy in most of the developing world, that infrastructure isn’t there yet. And even though the water usage is so very impressive in indoor growing, you still have to have a source of clean water that goes into the system, otherwise all of your plants are going to die.
As we learn more about the Sensei Ag model, would you say that from a branding standpoint, what will the consumers see? Will Sensei Farms be the go-to brand for produce, or will it be kind of a transition that takes place in the background?
No, Sensei Farms is our brand, and all of the produce that we will be selling into the market will be under the Sensei Farms brand. I think that this is an oligopolistic, multi-winner industry. The cost of construction of these farms remains very high, and I think that there’s not going to be a sort of Highlander scenario. I’m now dating myself by mentioning that movie. So this is not an industry where there can be only one. This is going to be an industry where there are 10 or 20 well-financed, well-run, and hopefully highly profitable indoor growers. And so for the consumer, that means they’re getting a cleaner, fresher, better tasting, and, with our product, more nutritious set of produce options on their supermarket shelves.
In terms of the produce, is the current lineup things that we can expect to see in our local grocery stores now, or is there room to either bring exotic produce or kind of different types of produce to the market as well?
So, you know, in indoor growing, the first challenge you have is what will grow in your system. And then the next challenge is of course, around optimization of yields and performance of the plant. And then the third challenge is how nutritious are these things? And because we’re growing in geographic proximity to the consumer, the nutritional value of a head of lettuce or tomato is higher because you are not picking it green and then gassing it red in order to survive the transportation distances. Your lettuce is going to be fresher and crisper. So there is an inherent nutritional boost to growing in proximity to consumption. I think you are going to start seeing people optimizing for certain types of vitamin content and those will have to be labeled. So I think we’re heading into a different regulatory environment for much of the produce that we’re starting to see. And that’s going to be a compliance issue for a lot of open field growers, as well as I think maybe some of the smaller, less equipped indoor growers. And then finally, I think you are going to see breeding. You’re going to start to see breeding programs as much as we’ve seen already with Bayer, having stepped into this with their new venture unfold, which is fully intending to create a new breeding program for indoor seeds. And frankly, my money is on them. I think they’re going to do very well.
The scientific community really loves the idea of GMO, but consumers don’t necessarily like the idea of GMO. Where does Sensei Ag fall into GMO?
There are very, very few vegetable seeds that are GMO. In fact, GMO really only exists in corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes if I’m not mistaken, so things like lettuces don’t have any GMO. Tomatoes have had some genetic modification. I think the notion of the old fashioned GMO is going to fall away and CRISPR is remarkable in terms of its speed, its ethicacy, its cost efficiency, and I think that every grower out there will be using at some point CRISPR or CRISPR based seeds because they will be indistinguishable from seeds that have been bread the old fashioned way.
There’s a concept in tech that a lot of the low-hanging fruit and no pun intended here, but low hanging fruit in terms of technology executions have been executed or picked, so to speak. Do you see that other industries such as agriculture, or even food technology, are now experiencing their own technology revolution? And this is really stemming off the idea that a lot of money was going towards technologies like AR and VR, or a lot of web based applications, or even mobile apps have already been executed, those low hanging fruit options. And now investors are maybe putting money into other things like agriculture, food, and biotech. Do you see that to be true?
There’s been an enormous amount of investment in agriculture, so I don’t think that the current investment quantum into agriculture is necessarily different. I think what is different is who is now participating in the investment in agriculture. And I think a lot of this is, again, a function of those input costs coming down, but also the fact that we are facing climate uncertainty, you know, in agriculture in a way that is unprecedented. So there’s a huge amount of white space right now to redefine agriculture, agricultural supply chains. And then of course the pandemic, I think the pandemic has brought out in pretty stark relief what happens when your food supply chain isn’t secure and indoor growing can definitely help you stabilize that.
Would you say that the Sensei Ag platform could potentially be licensed such that other teams would be able to use the Sensei Ag technology? Is that in the future roadmap?
Indeed, that is our roadmap is to provide actionable data to other farmers based on our multilayered growing experience. So today, if you are an indoor farmer, you are either buying your hardware solution from other purveyors of technology, or you are putting forward your solution as the best. And we are not making that judgment, we are growing in a multitude of different types of growing structures. We’re growing different crops, and our goal would be to provide that information to other farmers so that they can benefit from our having tested different types of growing structures in different climates, with different crops.
What advice do you have for investors that are interested in getting involved in the food and agriculture industry, specifically when they might not be too familiar with it? And I want to shed some additional light on this question because some of these new technologies, cell cultured meat, for example, there’s little public information available out there. So it’s oftentimes hard to do due diligence. So what advice do you have for investors that are getting involved in new food and agriculture technologies if they haven’t invested before?
I think there are two absolutes that I always look for as an investor. One is if the company’s technology is too early to assess the thing that you can assess as a management team. And I would say look for that management talent as you would in any venture stage investment. I think the other thing is: understand the path to profitability. And the rationale for that is that eventually these farms have to be project financeable, it’s infrastructure. And infrastructure, at some point, the kind of venture tap runs dry because that’s not venture capital’s business model. And so without profitability, I think you’re going to find it very hard to raise debt.
Going back to that example of a small five acre farm, what is the smallest scale or scale factor in terms of size, where we would be able to leverage the Sensei Ag platform if you’re building up spaces, not as important, but what would you say is the smallest size of a farm that could utilize the technology?
We have a 24,000 square foot greenhouse. In fact, we have 20,000 square foot greenhouses. We have a 30,000 square foot vertical farm. These are small footprints, 30,000 square feet is less than an acre and you can produce a metric ton of day of food. Yeah, this is not a land intensive industry.
Interesting. Okay. So that’s really not a factor at all, which is super exciting.
I think the other factor that, again, it’s all about that ecosystem and building the attendant infrastructure, is going to be energy, because when you are fully indoors and you’re artificially lit, you have quite an extraordinary energy burden, right? You’re not using the sun or the wind to heat or cool your growing. So all of that has to be electricity driven. And so that is going to be your infrastructure constraint.
I see. And you are saving resources by not using as much water, but there will be more of an energy demand. Interesting. Okay. And just kind of like thinking about a future where farms are, these hyper efficient systems is very exciting. For those that are studying agricultural technology, what advice might you have for them as we do move into a new era of food production technology?
Yeah. In fact, I was at a university on Tuesday. Absolutely incredible place. My gosh. I think if I had to redo my university career, that would be my first choice. And I think getting practical experience out of farm is incredibly important. Having said that, anybody can work in a indoor farm, right? You don’t have to come to us from a degree in agronomy or computer science. I think this is a great bridging industry to the kind of high-tech world. We’ll teach you the plant science, we’ll teach you the computer science and give you a career path in indoor growing. I think if you’re a student and you’re interested in ecology, you’re interested in water conservation, you’re interested in better nutrition. All of these things will be valuable and interesting to the indoor growing world. But I think also being passionate, being hardworking, the usual things of showing up to work on time, being polished, being well-groomed. These are the things that will get you a job in general, but also we’ll get you a job in indoor growing.
We see farmers today definitely have a diverse array of skills. Computer programming is not one of them today, but do you think that might be in the future again?
Again, I don’t think you have to have a degree in computer science to work in indoor farming and to have a successful career in it. I think that you have to have a great work ethic. I think you have to care deeply about what is going on, but the precision and the science is all teachable.
You can get in touch with Sonia on LinkedIn and learn more about Sensei Ag at www.sensei.ag. Sonia, do you have any last insights or announcements for our audience today?
I would say, I think this is an incredible industry. I’m so grateful that I fell into it, even if it was not by design and more by accident. And I think that as an industry, it has a wonderful future ahead of it.
Sonia, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your insight on the future food show.
Thank you so much, Alex. Great to be here.
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to being with you on our next episode.
This transcript was generated by an automated service. Special thanks to Hannah Olson of Montana State University for assisting with the transcription for this episode.