Leveraging technology originally developed at the University of Guelph for NASA to test the ability to grow life on Mars, Elevate Farms is building some of the worlds most cutting edge vertical farms. We invited the company’s CEO and Founder Amin Jadavji to StartWell for this conversation that recounts the company’s history and technology plus addresses food shortage problems brought to light by the pandemic and more.
Qasim Virjee 0:29
Welcome back to the start well podcast I’m Qasim as always in this episode is our 37th episode. For those of you who are tuning in via YouTube or our digital magazine and enjoying us in clear, high definition, welcome to the studio. This is where we record all the podcasts. So feel free to look back on past episodes, where you can watch a bunch of the recent ones anyway, as well in video, and for everyone on Spotify, and, you know, iTunes, and everywhere else, I hope that we sound nice and clear. Alright, today I’m in studio with Amin Jadavji from Alevate Farms.
Qasim Virjee 1:07
The last episode around if you guys caught it was Ran Goel from Fresh City Farms. And so this is becoming a kind of a theme. You know, urban farming becomes vertical farming, and we’re going to talk about what that is.
Qasim Virjee 1:21
So Amin welcome to the studio. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Amin Jadavji 1:24
Amazing. Thank you for having me.
Qasim Virjee 1:26
Yeah, of course, man. I’m excited. You know, it’s funny for to fill people in. You know, we started we were going to do this podcast a week ago. And we ended up talking in this very room with the mics off. And it was an awesome experience. And we just talked and we talked and we talked and we do the same thing. I think today before I press record. So I hope the rest of you enjoy the conversation that we’re about to have, because it’s one that’s already started. So I’m in Introduce yourself.
Amin Jadavji 1:52
Yeah, so my name is I’m in today I have g I’m founder CEO of Elevate farms. We’re a vertical farming technology company, based here in Toronto.
Qasim Virjee 2:05
Let’s back. Let’s take it back a little bit. Tell me about you as an entrepreneur, your experience becoming or otherwise always being an entrepreneur, what’s your business kind of? bio data?
Amin Jadavji 2:19
Yeah, yeah. So, you know, I interesting, I think it’s all sort of an evolution. So I started out as a 20, something year old out of university, joining what was then a fairly small family business manufacturing paper products. And I don’t think I was probably a little naive, I thought I had a couple years get some work experience and move on. The reality is, we came up with a really good business plan, and that was focus on high volume, low margin us. seems straightforward enough. The implementation of that took about 20 years. Wow. So spent two decades really just building out that. That strategy?
Qasim Virjee 3:21
How old was the company before you spent two decades there? Well,
Amin Jadavji 3:26
it That in itself is probably another really long story of, you know, entrepreneurial journey from previous generations and immigrant immigrants into Canada from from East Africa. But maybe to frame it. As we came in to that the business was early 90s. We were in a recession, free trade had just come in. So what that meant was for at least for the paper industry, and for many other industries, that was prices suddenly got 17 and a half percent cheaper for American imports, like literally overnight. And the company had about 18 employees. And then over the next 20 years, we grew that to about 360 employees. We went from leasing some space back in the early 90s, to owning our own portfolio of about a million square feet of owner occupied manufacturing space that was spread out over Ontario, Quebec and northern New York. So fair, sizable US operations as well. That at the time put us at fourth largest in Canada. But while that’s, you know, Canada’s relatively sizable paper industry, that number slightly exaggerated because the three above us were easily 10 times our size. Okay, and then the next closest competitor behind us was about a fifth or Less than a fifth of our size. So we were in this sort of funny no man’s land, and it was kind of clear that there’s going to be an exit. Like it’s capital intensive. We did a pretty good job growing the business, but really like organic growth, you know, one customer at a time. Yeah, you get a customer, you buy a machine, you hire an employee, you sell out the product, you get another customer, you buy another machine, and it was really a 20 year grind of that. So So yeah, I mean, in many ways. We did exit the business. We sold to the number one market share competitor is
Qasim Virjee 5:41
that Krueger? Krueger? Yeah, right. Yeah. So that’s my friend’s dad’s company. Gene Kruger. Okay, I went to McGill with Gene. Oh, wow.
Amin Jadavji 5:49
Okay, so, Joseph. Yeah. I had that pleasure of spending some time with Joseph. It’s funny. I didn’t I didn’t know that. From,
Qasim Virjee 6:02
but I have my tentacles.
Amin Jadavji 6:04
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I think Joseph and I, in like, in less than an hour, crafted the whole deal. But then it took, and there were sort of management consultants, financial consultants, legal team and 12 vice presidents that then took over. So this became an enormous, you know, but it was almost like, I mean, if we had a back of an envelope and a pencil, yeah, we we sketched everything out, and then handed it off to like, you know, teams and teams of people to sort of implement this thing. And I don’t mean to say like, we were this massive company, but Krueger certainly was in his. But yeah, I still sort of share some emails back and forth with with Joseph, really, really impressive guy. It’s funny, he, he would sort of start firing away questions. Yeah. And before you could answer the first he was on the fourth. Yeah. So it’s sort of like, he’s, you know, he’s asking you questions, you’re starting to answer. He’s reading your mind and jumping into the next thing. So you don’t I don’t need to hear the rest of that. You know, the first word was good enough, you know, that that sort of, but yeah, yeah. Anyway, sorry, I digress. But no, it’s,
Qasim Virjee 7:20
it’s, it’s, it’s interesting. And it frames this kind of like, again, you know, the thing I think I might have taken you off of it. But before you exit it, of course, you were talking about what was achieved in 20 years, and a lot of it that you’ve told me off the mic was a lot of automation, and a lot of systems and a lot of digitization.
Amin Jadavji 7:37
Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. I think what led to the the exit to Kruger was just about an hour, hour and a half east of Toronto had just built a highly automated manufacturing facility where we took sort of industry, average labor cost, which at the time, publicly traded companies was around 13%. And we’ve got them down to five. So that was somewhat impressive. And I guess the we kind of knew that off the back of that it’s going to be the number one or the number two guy, one of those two guys. But how you
Qasim Virjee 8:17
did it. I mean, from what you told me, This is what would interested me when you explain kind of like, the automation in the process, and the fact that like, right, from my right in knowing or in perceiving your business there as being like, is it? Is it still the old school thing, you get lumber, and the lumber gets stripped and processed? And
Amin Jadavji 8:38
yes, Paul, so to put to put sort of a visualization on this week, we we had a paper mill, yeah. Where we brought in raw materials and turned it into these massive rolls of paper, these sort of 2000 pound rolls of paper. Yeah, we were from the late 90s, one of the few companies that only did 100% recycled. So as opposed
Qasim Virjee 9:08
to so you didn’t have trucks with massive redwoods not read was that’s illegal, other, you know, trees coming in your doors,
Amin Jadavji 9:15
right. So we were buying recycled or waste fiber from other people, which meant an inconsistent supply. And we were turning that into, you know, 100% recycled product, which then those massive roles were then shipped to our, what we called converting, you could say sort of processing. So we had three processing plants where we brought in massive rolls of paper and ran them through our machines and turn it into a finished product, right? I’d say easily late 90s, early 2000s. The market didn’t really want recycled, like people would say why would I have you know, recycled paper when I could have you know 100% Virgin nude to be nice and bright or white and softer, and who cares about, you know, the environmental impact that that’s the truth? I mean, I think so we were kind of a tip from that standpoint. We did a really good job. If I could pat ourselves on the back, we did a really good job making high quality product from recycled fibers. And that meant no adjusting our machinery changing our embossed patterns that make things softer. Sure. Get not to hide that it was recycled. But the market didn’t associate recycled with premium, or, or, I mean, really, it kind of downplayed it like it said, Well, we would rather pay more money and get a better product.
Qasim Virjee 10:44
I didn’t really yeah, this hits home in me just kind of going in my brain to 1992 when we moved to Kenya from Calgary. And it was really funny was, there was toilet paper, right there was there was very limited selection of the type of toilet paper you could buy. In Kenya, there was imported toilet paper, funnily enough, and it will cost about $5 a roll. So some king kings and kingmakers alike used it and felt comfortable everyday. But for us, plebs, we had to buy the cheap stuff. And the cheap stuff was recycled. But it wasn’t even on the package that it was recycled. It wasn’t like, Hey, we’re saving the environment, it was more like, Hey, this is our way of doing it. Because it’s we got to work with what we have. And unfortunately, there was tinfoil once in a while. And that deutlich paper.
Amin Jadavji 11:36
Yeah, that’s crazy. So I in our like, in our sort of business, we were probably about 60% of our volume was in paper napkins. And what we found out after we got bought out was we were when it came to paper napkins. So this is like, you know, napkins that would go into restaurants especially right? Obviously, there was a little bit of retail, but our volume in paper napkins was, if you took the number two, number three and number four competitors in Canada and doubled it, we did more than all of them combined times. So we’re just going back to that, like 20 years earlier, we sort of we focused on the things that we thought there was an opportunity. And the The truth is, I mean, we’re in our 20s Looking at this business, right? So we focused on things that we thought would be an opportunity, but also, you know, everyone’s sort of fighting for supermarket shelf space. And trying to get into Walmart or Loblaws. And so we thought, well, let’s go into the food service segment, the wholesale supply, let’s build a brand in a segment that doesn’t have a brand, let’s have consistent quality at do sort of value. Like that’s what we called ourselves that value supplier. And so really kind of understanding the consumer and then developing tech around that. So high volume, low margin, but really, you know, maintaining consistent supply, which meant what we need to get on paper now. And that, you know, serve as kind of a series of events, but that’s the whole kind of 20 year journey. And so maybe with that I’ll spring board into into the future into Yeah, yeah, until the current maybe. So really thought that food supply chain risks around food are really important. So in our, in the paper business
Qasim Virjee 13:44
if we let’s put this story or juncture in the story on the calendar, so when did elevate farms, you know, the birthing story is happening, but like when was this?
Amin Jadavji 13:54
Yeah, so So 90 Sorry. 2014. Okay, so 2014 getting out of the paper business. One of the things sort of frustration in the business was well, it’s highly capital intensive. We were in this sort of funny spot of no man’s land in terms of market cap or size. And there was always this phantom price. Some some people in manufacturing, call it the Race to Zero. Okay. We always have to figure out how to make things cheaper, regardless of the fact that costs keep going up. Yes. So we’ve got extended health coverage in Canada, very expensive health in the US, unionized manufacturing plants at the paper mill 401k and pension contributions were making for employees. And anytime you went into a customer, you get this. Hey, here’s a copy of an invoice from China. Yeah, but, you know, we’re not. We’re not in China.
Qasim Virjee 14:56
Yeah, even the people in China are not in China. The perception Have like Yeah,
Amin Jadavji 15:01
yeah. So so that was really the and this wasn’t like the day we sold the business. This was the years and years leading up to it that there was always I called the Phantom price. Here is a price that we could buy product from China. Maybe once, maybe once in a while, not consistently, as we see right now its supply chain pressures. My
Qasim Virjee 15:19
China is we work. Yeah, but that’s another story. Yeah. Well,
Amin Jadavji 15:23
you know, even something as simple as that the freight cost, you know, your container of paper products might have been 10, or $12,000. The freight was three, but at certain times of the year, it’s nine. Well, today, it probably is even more than that. So that that’s where I call it the Phantom price that we had to kind of meet that phantom price. And one of the things so our customers, not the buyers that I was dealing with, but our customers were primarily foodservice distributors. So these are people who are moving a tremendous volume of food. I mean, in reality, our US food service customers buy more food than Canada. I don’t mean, then.
Qasim Virjee 16:10
Yeah. Loblaws a single company, then the whole country’s worth of That’s right. Yeah. So there, there is a population of America’s how many 600 million something more,
Amin Jadavji 16:20
three 303 change, but so, you know, maybe a little little sidebar, which does relate to both the paper and, and the farming, but pre COVID, because we have good numbers. 54% of all food consumed in America went through food service. So if you think about you know, how 100% of your food takeout culture, you know, fast food. Exactly, exactly. So 54% a little more than half of all food consumed in America, pre COVID was through restaurants, hotels, airport, shopping malls. And the balance 46 was not just grocery it was, you know, grocery meal delivery kits, catering, all sorts of other things. Yeah. So what’s kind of unknown? I mean, there’s there’s three foodservice distributors that control the majority of that. 54%. And luckily for us, all three of those major guys were ex customers of mine. Yeah, so feeding
Qasim Virjee 17:24
50 million people each. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Something
Amin Jadavji 17:27
like that. Well, yeah. Yeah. So so just massive, massive volumes, you know, huge organization. And in food. I’m going back to I’m going to fresh produce for a moment. I mean, food is obviously so broad. But with fresh produce, it’s essentially just in time, right? You can like, we often get the question like vertical farming seems to be tackling leafy greens and why leafy greens, and everyone may have different reasons. But one of the predominant reasons is that, you know, you can take apples and stockpile them for a year, potatoes, onions, same thing. You can take tomatoes, you can jar them, you can freeze them, you can can them, you can process them. But with leafy greens, you can’t stockpile them, they have a 14 day shelf life, right. They’re all farmed throughout the year, not local harvest. But once you get past the local harvest, which is a very short part of the year, the majority of the year. It’s all farmed in the southwest of the US, or Mexico or further south. Yeah, so you’re talking 5000 kilometers of transportation, which equates to roughly five days. So you have a you have a product that has a 14 day shelf life with five days and transport. And without exaggeration, there’s not a single restaurant in North America that doesn’t serve salad. I mean, even McDonald’s makes more money on their salads than they do on their burgers. Yeah, and let’s face it, we all talk about
Qasim Virjee 19:05
arugula robust lettuces that have no traditional value in the post 50s coming to light as the only choice like when I was growing up we only had Iceberg lettuce man. Yeah, yeah, that’s not even lettuce.
Amin Jadavji 19:18
Yeah, I mean, it’s crunchy and crisp and keeps better than other stuff. So So it serves a purpose you know, it gives you a little crunch in your your hamburger refreshing and keeps your bun from getting soggy. No one wants soggy ponds. Right? Exactly. So So I mean that that that really was kind of setting the standard you know if we missed a delivery and paper get pissed off customer they may drop us but the truth is, Phil just fill us our our lack of supply, they’ll just fill it with someone else. But, but here, it was a little more critical like you couldn’t easily substitute restaurants don’t want to run out of product. And you’ve got this very fragile supply chain. It’s funny this the hypothesis for all of this sort of food, vertical farming, urban farming, aka the hunter, the whole industry really predated obviously, the pandemic. But, you know, the the sort of two things that really stand out since the last 20 months is fragile supply chains. And to a certain extent, maybe lesser, but probably more relevant is food security. You know, these weren’t the world wasn’t talking about supply chains and food security two years ago, I mean, I might have been, but, you know, the
Qasim Virjee 20:47
assumption of kind of like fluidity of book no cross border on a global level, in 2019, was that, from at least from every perspective, from the b2b perspective, and from the customers, you know, the the high street perspective, was that I want my avocados when I want to, you know, and they should be cheaper, and I don’t care how much water goes into making them.
Amin Jadavji 21:09
Yeah, no, no, that’s exactly right. That’s the sort of, I mean, the border
Qasim Virjee 21:12
state Oh, this is a really important point to talk about in last couple of years is that, you know, despite a pandemic, in the early days of the pandemic, where the threat wasn’t even calculated, in terms of or let’s say, qualified, 20, high degree, there was a lot of fear, even in the scientific community, about, you know, what the real rate of transmission could be, like, in the literally the first few weeks of this, one of the the main things that was decided early on, seemed to be politically that the borders would stay open for trade. So, you know, I mean, yeah, it was probably pretty likely that the the lettuce coming across the border wasn’t going to kill anyone with COVID. But it’s an interesting idea to posit that if something more heinous, you know, was being transmitted, and you had to shut the border. Alas, the salads would no longer be Canadian. or eaten in Canada. Yeah.
Amin Jadavji 22:09
began coming back to that sort of high level concept of food security. There. You know, this week, the US announced that they were going to release 15 million barrels of oil from their stores to help offset gasoline prices leading up to you know, us thanksgiving. That sounds great. Oh, but there are no stores for food. Yeah, so it like I mean, obviously, grain suppliers have grain and you know, but I’ve read it. But but but yet for fresh fruit, you can’t do it. But it’s not typically government run, right? It’s individual companies maintaining their inventory levels for their best practices, which is typically just in time, the only reason they’re storing grain is because they only harvest it at certain times of the year, but they need it all year round. It’s not for any other, you know, socio economic reason of food security. The so yeah, you’re absolutely right, that we close the borders, but then we kept it open for trade, because that survival. That the flip side, though, to that is that all around the world, we essentially chucked out foreign workers. So everything’s shutting down, you’re leaving. And and I hate to say it, but in every country, the farmworkers were from somewhere else, you know, and it’s, it’s sort of, you know, in, in generalizing, but in the US it’s Mexican. Yeah, of course, in in the UK, it might be Romanian, but in Romania, it’s somewhere else from someone from somewhere else, international phenomenon. It’s, it’s really, you know, Ontario Apple pickers, we’re coming from Jamaica.
Qasim Virjee 24:03
Interesting. Well, close the border. We
Amin Jadavji 24:05
sent them all home. Yeah. When we had Apple season, and we were still in COVID. And we had to bring people up from these different islands. We stuck them all like the we used to in a little dormitory style, you know, cabin with a whole bunch of beds, and they
Qasim Virjee 24:21
all got sick. I knew nothing of this story. This is fascinating. So So you know,
Amin Jadavji 24:25
one of the early headlines through the the first summer of COVID. In the UK, food all around the world, food was rotting in the fields because there was no one to pick it. So in the UK, people volunteer to go work the fields and pick tomatoes or carrots or whatever it was that was in season and this happened obviously for months and months. But that’s because people were home and food was rotting. And there were no workers. Yeah, we all relied on someone else to do that work for us. I don’t think anyone wanted to see a pandemic come but I think the idea of food security You know, I’ve been talking about this for a little while with prospective ex customers of mine. And the truth is they say I have vertical farming sounds great, but what’s the price? And oil came back down to just like being in the paper business? Around price. The good thing here is that the price was no longer the cheapest price at the cheapest time of the year that phantom price. Yeah. The customers are the buyers were savvy enough to understand that there was so much price volatility on fresh produce from summer to winter, from spring to fall, that it it no longer became make, you know, can you make product at the cheapest price? It was? Can you make product at the average price? Exactly. Because then we can have a stable price. Yeah, instead of one that fluctuates quarterly. And that’s that’s that’s the honest truth with with the volatility in the market. So we got sort of elevate farms we kind of came together with and this in itself could be a massive story, to get into detail about how we evolved as elevate farm from sort of a technology perspective, but we kind of had that same focus that I’d say we had at Metro paper, and that was high volume, low margin. Like how do we figure out how to grow really good food at competitive costs? Right. So
Qasim Virjee 26:22
when we first met and you told me about this, that was still like, what was that a year ago?
Amin Jadavji 26:27
Who you are two, three, almost? Yeah,
Qasim Virjee 26:29
that was the the story you told me was that you wanted to be able to provide millions and millions and millions of heads of lettuce, you know, kind of quickly, affordably? And everywhere.
Amin Jadavji 26:42
Yeah. And that that’s very much the focus of what we’re trying to do. So we weren’t trying to figure out can we grow this stuff? I mean, it is great. Maybe you can comment on that. But the actual product? Yeah, I’ll talk about that. Yeah. But really, the idea was, how do we use our know how and develop technology, minimize electricity costs and automation and kind of leveraging on all of these are sort of two decades of experience that I and the other people on our team have had? How do we use all that to figure out how to do this at mass scale. So that’s really that the focus that we were trying to get across? So as much as I’d like to say, Oh, it’s a great product, and it should be worth three times the market price. We’re really trying to tackle can we actually feed people cost competitively? And then of course, then along comes COVID. Yeah, and the whole world gets turned upside down. And everyone all of a sudden is concerned. Maybe concerned, I’m saying loosely, we’re all concerned about food security, we’re still not doing a lot about it. So yeah, yeah, that that really was the evolution from paper to, to vertical farmed or locally farmed. Leafy greens.
Qasim Virjee 27:55
Okay, so definitely, yes, I’ll while it’s fresh, you know, I will talk about the quality of the product that I’ve tasted, right. So we could go you gave me two bags of some delicious lettuces to take home. There was a kale, a red kale, there was an arugula. And there was a what lettuce was a it was a Napa cabbage, Napa cabbage. Yeah. Delicious. Like this was the first thing that came to mind right was the depth of flavor. So obviously, texture, it’s wonderful. And you don’t need like wash it unless I didn’t follow the instructions but you don’t watch it as if it’s covered in dirt because it’s not covered in dirt. It hasn’t you know, rolled around in the back of the truck on the way from to the farmers market. So really easy to handle produce, let’s say that was bursting in flavor with fantastic texture because it was so fresh. It was still growing. I mean, the roots were in a little ball of of dirt when you gave it to me. So I think and this is obviously this is not You’re not unique in providing a kind of a fresh plant to the consumer, right? We do that like Fiesta Farms is my local grocer and shout out to Fiesta farms. Like Toronto’s largest perhaps remaining independent grocer, baby. I think they have a lot of organic, a lot of local a lot of fresh stuff. And yeah, you could buy like a basil plant that’s still living. However, however, those are mostly seemingly genetically modified plants that I buy it’s supposed to be organic and fresh and beautiful. But someone owns the trademark to their genes and they’re always exactly the same. I like the variety of flavor and what you gave me it was delicious. Literally the most delicious arugula ever that I think could be like open up I think your products could open up a whole world just on this like nutrition density, flavor density question a whole new world talking about retail experience for like you know fiends of fans of juice of the epic capital J juice that everyone drinks for $500 A glass.
Amin Jadavji 30:02
Yeah, yeah. So you know, that sort of research and development work, the basis of what the technology is built around was really advanced Photobiology. Our group was heavily involved in the food for Space Research. So the precursor to the Mars space mission. Before we talk about going to space, we had to figure out can we actually grow food in space. And so I won’t bore you with all the details. But we had a, like, from early on, we had a very deep understanding of how plants react to their environmental conditions, including not just light, but colors of light, quality of light, yeah, quantity of light. And that the the sort of, one of the things that fascinated me the most about the research was that that color of light actually has the biggest impact on growth. So not the nutrient. You know what we’re talking about, like plants needing soil, obviously, they do, and they pull nutrients from the soil, you add additional nutrients and fertilizers and all that sort of stuff. But what we found was changing those had a small impact on the outcome. If we change color of light, we could change the nutrient outcome of the plant by greater than 100%. So we could use one color of light and make a plant more than 100% larger, or we could use a different color of light and make the plant more than 100% Higher nutrients. So you can’t create a nutrient that didn’t exist. But we that I guess, if we make it sort of put simply. You mentioned GMO, this is not about GMO, it’s literally we take a seed, we put that seed in a research chamber. And we start to grow that seed using all kinds of different environmental variables temperature, moisture, and a co2, blue light, yellow light, green light, far red UV, whatever it is color of light, and quantity of light, we start to change all of these things. And in real time in a sealed box, we can understand how that seed is reacting to the changes in the environmental conditions. And what we essentially do is create an algorithm, we create kind of a recipe of what’s the optimum way of growing this particular product. So when we did that for arugula, what we came up with was, I mean, we’re essentially trying to create the optimum natural environment for that seed, right would be unique from seed to seed. So when we first did this with arugula, it was so powerful peppery, that like, literally, your face turns red, you feel like you just bid into a wasabi plant. I mean, there’s like something’s not growing in a plant. But that was sort of like a radish. horseradish. Yeah, yeah. But it’s been in a leafy green, right. I think somewhere there’s a video that was put out of certainly, you know, the Toronto chef with the ponytail. Yeah. And he’s sort of going around the kitchen, getting everyone in the kitchen and hit one of his restaurant kitchens to try the arugula. You got to try this. You got to try these. You got to stay in here just going on. And everyone’s like, Oh, my God, you know? Yeah. Now were you tasted was glad you enjoyed it. But we’ve really had to tone down the flavor
Qasim Virjee 33:45
like 20%. So sir level? Am I am I 10% Iron Chef palette?
Amin Jadavji 33:52
You know, I think you said that. You’re, you’re your comment. You had you. You’d serve this to some people. And they said, This is great, but not on its own. Yeah,
Qasim Virjee 34:01
we were making fresh pizzas, right. Like, that’s my thing. I’m making, you know, dough from scratch, and we’re making them on the barbecue. And, and they were afraid of having that much flavor on their pizza.
Amin Jadavji 34:11
Yeah, yeah. So So it’s interesting. So percentage wise, I’d say definitely less than half of the potency that it would have been. And, and so our kind of the model here is we take a seed, we put it in the research chamber, these are the research chambers that we’re using for Space Research in previous years. And we understand how that seed reacts to its environment, create a recipe and then plug in that recipe into a large scale production facility.
Qasim Virjee 34:45
And that’s a computed process right?
Amin Jadavji 34:47
Yes. It to a certain extent, flavor is not to a certain extent, flavor is is completely subjective. And being sort of research driven, we have to have kind of a finite outcome. So what we tried to do is minimize, we we set the target as what you would normally find in conventional product in terms of size. So the target is the target for that product, we call that 1.0, we want to get to 1.0, using as little resources as possible, resources are typically electricity. So, as we start to adjust colors of light, we find that, oh, you know, on this plant, if we increase the blue from 18% to 24%, it grows slightly faster, we can get to that same point A day earlier, or it’s growing so fast, but we don’t want to get there quicker, because it affects the maturity of the plant. So we actually turned down the dimmer switch. So it’s a combination of the amount of power you consume, and the number of days you consume it over. But we’re we’re creating the the outcome is how to do this cost effectively. The sidebar is that the nutrients are higher than standard. So we’re not maximizing for nutrients, although I’d love to. Because then what happens is, as you change nutrients, you change flavors, and then it starts to become subjective. And we have all these other issues. And we’re trying to convince someone that this is good, which I believe it is. But instead, the approach we’re taking to get to mass market is, let’s match what’s out there. But let’s figure out how to do this at the lowest possible cost. Sure. And so the full scale sort of production is roughly a 5000 square foot box.
Qasim Virjee 36:47
That’s your modular unit. Yeah.
Amin Jadavji 36:50
So it’s kind of like thinking of a container. But but much larger than a container. Yeah. So if you could picture a 5000 square foot box, roughly 200 feet long, by 25 feet wide, rough dimensions. And that box is fed by a conveyor that comes in to one end, and a conveyor that goes out at the other end. So everything goes in at one end, travels through this approximately 200 foot long box and comes out by conveyor at the far end. In this 5000 square foot room, we produce, you know, give or take, depending on the product, but nice round number about a million pounds a year of food.
Qasim Virjee 37:27
Let’s put this in context. I know this isn’t like apples to apples, but like, how much food does your average person consume? Do you know,
Amin Jadavji 37:37
with leafy greens, I think it’s something like 25 kilos per year.
Qasim Virjee 37:46
And you said you produce how much? Yeah, so
Amin Jadavji 37:48
you know what I, I’d have to come back to because I guess the big numbers, but in terms of sort of scale, this is like taking 5050 acres of outdoor land and putting it into about a ninth of an acre. Yeah. So something like 99% less land than an outdoor field. But what gets really amazing is the measurement, the unit of measure for watering, a farmer’s field is is literally and I had to double take when I first heard this, it’s their unit of measure is called an acre foot. I thought well, we mean an acre foot, and it is literally an acre 12 inches tall. So imagine flooding an acre of field. 12 inches tall. Yeah. And that is one unit of acre feet. Okay, so farmer’s fields use multiple acre feet, times, you know, 50 acres.
Qasim Virjee 38:48
Yeah, it’s a volumetric kind of measurement, because it’s kind of like, the powerlines would be like, you know, how often you’re watering your field because you have to water it equally. And with enough foots worth of water, it’s gonna go down. And
Amin Jadavji 39:02
that’s right. And then you do that multiple times through the growth cycle. Yeah, so just enormous amounts of water and land, resources, size, all of that stuff. And then, of course, the 5000 kilometers for transportation that was talking about the migrant workers and the borders and all these other things.
Qasim Virjee 39:19
Farms, extremely intensive. Yeah, yeah. So
Amin Jadavji 39:21
you know, if I wanted to exaggerate the numbers, there are things that we grow where are 5000 square feet is equal to about 100 acres of land, but kind of the average is around 50 to 60 acres. And so our water saving, so you’re taking 50 acres of land, and you’re putting it into about 1/9 of an acre. So that’s that’s pretty massive. Yeah, that alone is massive. Yeah. And then you do add the water savings to that and it’s it’s around 30 to 40 million litres of water that we are saving in a year a year. So we can grow
Qasim Virjee 39:59
that number doesn’t mean anything to me. Yeah, exactly. So it makes me want to go to the washroom. I need to go pee No.
Amin Jadavji 40:07
Yeah, break. Um, so sue, in 5000 square feet in terms of industrial manufacturing, going back to the paper business, we had a million square feet of owner occupied space. Well, 5000 square feet is not a lot of space. That’s our gross space. So just just to be clear, there is other, you’ve got tanks and screens, and that’s
Qasim Virjee 40:30
like office space. Just to frame this for our listeners, our audience. That’s like 5000 square feet would be a furnished office space for 50 to 100 people, depending on the metric of how dense it is and how the use cases
Amin Jadavji 40:43
Yeah, or like a basement in a bridle path house.
Qasim Virjee 40:46
Yeah, Drake’s basement. Yeah, exactly. So
Amin Jadavji 40:49
5000 square feet, as industrial manufacturing, not a lot of space. But in 5000 square feet, we grow a million pounds a year, and that’s conveyer in conveyor out, which means we have not a single human that has a physical job inside our growth system. Obviously, this farm needs people. Yeah, but when you talk about food security, this is all done to the level of like NASA safety protocols with a bunch of ex NASA researchers working on this, right. But the only human job that happens inside our growroom is someone going in for daily check. You know, everything is sensors, and cameras, and software, and a huge I mean, just a tremendous amount of data data collection. But it’s all off the back of scientific research, which was all from the precursor to the Mars space mission.
Qasim Virjee 41:48
So it’s so funny, because I think about 1020 years ago, the rhetoric or let’s just say the Yeah, I guess it’s kind of like the end consumer perspective, from my angle on vertical farming and automated farming seem to be a kind of, you know, futurism. It was about kind of like this is this is a dis utopian future. And the hope was to feed the, you know, malnourished, underserved populations of the emerging markets. And that seemed to be the North American take on this was like, great, this is awesome technology that’s going to save the starving people of Africa. And the Gobi Desert can now be, you know, can flourish again. But, but I think things have changed a lot, right? You’re talking about food scarcity, and realizations of the pandemic hitting hard. Also, of course, we have this question of like what we like, so North Americans don’t like thinking of what we need, you know, we always think about what we want. And what I find fascinating, of course, in the pandemic has been that diverse selection of products that has continued to be imported somehow magically, very seldom have I not seen my dragon fruit kicking around? No, it’s like, I don’t eat dragon fruit. But that’s just like,
Amin Jadavji 43:05
blueberries. You know, they’re coming from South America. Right? The raspberries from again, airfreighted in
Qasim Virjee 43:12
Yeah, so some suppliers have been swapped in and out in different regions, but the product has made its way here. And it’s fascinating. But anyway, so my point is the production means is not simply for a single use case. You could send these to the UAE, where, you know, toilet water is, is it costs probably, each flush, probably costs five bucks to flush a toilet in Dubai.
Amin Jadavji 43:39
Yeah, I mean, they’re relying heavily on disinclination, right? Yeah, just super expensive, too. So if you can go back to visualizing that 5000 square foot box, we’ve got layers and layers of plants stacked on top of each other. The plants are obviously fed water based nutrients. But what would this be like grade seven biology, the plants have a stemmata. And they put out moisture. So to keep the plants healthy, we’ve got to figure out how to deal with that moisture. So we’re extracting moisture from the room. And we run that through our system and we essentially separate it into two things. We create almost a drink. They drink their pee. Well, yeah, no, but it’s, it’s still equivalent water. Yeah. So we’re, we’re, we’re taking moisture out of the air, we’re splitting it into pure air and pure water. And so out of this 5000 square feet, we were pulling around 2000 liters a day of excess of water out of the air. We take that moisture out of the air, we create pure water from it. We add our organic nutrients and we pump that back into the plant in a closed loop system. Right. So we’re literally first of all, you mentioned, the product that you brought home you didn’t have to worry Wash your tap water at home, which is Toronto has very good tap water. But you’ve got fluoride and chlorine and things in the water to keep you and the water supply healthy. These plants are grown in pure water, like, absolutely pure.
Qasim Virjee 45:20
Yeah. And there’s no risk of Ecoli poisoning,
Amin Jadavji 45:23
we have a lot of safety measures in place to there’s
Qasim Virjee 45:26
no like, there’s no pigs pulling in the plants and slow.
Amin Jadavji 45:29
I mean, we’re getting to the point with conveyor and conveyor out that you don’t even have humans inside the room. So so everything, I mean, we’re, we’re, we’re kind of expanding our business and building scale. And as we build scale, you’ll see higher degree of automation. And again, this, these are things I’ve spent 20 years on and building sort of automation. So we’re leveraging on existing conveyors, we didn’t invent conveyors, we’re not trying to invent conveyors, but we’re integrating conveyors into our solution. But we’re essentially eliminating that human intervention or, or drastically minimizing it, which drastically reduces your chances of contamination. So when you look at sort of hasip, is identifying hazards. And we’re so low on the potential list of hazards. Because there’s very few touch points. But the 2000 liters of water coming out of the air, then goes back into the plants. And then you can sort of visualize or you can’t visualize that because it’s just, it’s, you know, it’s moisture that’s being pulled. But you can picture the acre feet. So what we do in 5000 square feet, recollecting the moisture, it’s kind of like we’re being the clouds. Yeah. And, and, you know, we’re also we’re like, we’re, you know, we’re the rain, and we’re the clouds, and we’re but but out in the field, that 12 inches of water that goes, you know, the acre foot that goes into the field, exactly, as you described, it starts to go into the soil, and you water it again, a lot of that water just starts to evaporate as it hits the ground,
Qasim Virjee 47:16
right? Or it sinks into the water table, depending on the soil, right, the elevation and the angle of
Amin Jadavji 47:21
the land. Exactly. So I mean, there’s a lot of technology trying to improve that I’m not trying to exaggerate or but it’s still but it’s, yeah, so in our case, we’re, it’s almost like we’re growing plants in in a baking cup, right? You know, you can have a tray with a lot of really small holes for your your muffin batter. And so in one tray, you might be able to make 24 Really small muffins are six really big muffins. Yep. You know, and that’s the same sort of thing. We have these proprietary trays, and we either grow a lot of really small plants, or a few really big plants in the same amount of space. But we’re only watering that little spot. Yeah, just like you’re putting in your
Qasim Virjee 47:59
bandage or inputs. And it’s a self sustaining ecosystem. Yeah,
Amin Jadavji 48:03
yeah. So obviously, lots of safety protocols. Automatic, you know, feeding and monitoring and screens and filters and all the rest. But But yeah, it’s, it’s really, everything’s really focused on how do we feed the masses.
Qasim Virjee 48:24
Okay, so this is not a boutique business, in the sense that this is not a business that, you know, you could create, let’s say micro farms costs sustainably, to put into a neighborhood to replace an urban farm or feed someone, supply of food that otherwise would come from across the world in just their local shop.
Amin Jadavji 48:45
Yes, I’m gonna advocate maybe for the industry saying, I think the industry absolutely can help fill that void. Right. You know, there are people in the US who sell container farms, and they’re sort of like, they’re pitching it as though, you know, be your own boss, like you live, you know, but they’re the sort of target demographic as someone who lives in, let’s say, rural America, who has a bunch of land, you buy this container, you stick it in on your property connected garden hose and an electrical power outlet, and you start growing your own food. And, you know, every Saturday, Sunday, go down to the local neighborhood farmers market and sell your stuff. That’s the that’s the sort of, you know, that’s one level of it.
Qasim Virjee 49:25
And even the more micro level of it, of course, is just for fun, but it’s, yeah, no, no, grow your own weed plant here in Canada. There’s all these startups. I think one of them used to be I remember a company here that had this like, you know, hydroponic weed system for condos, and it was like, you’re allowed one plant legally in each home. So Grow Your Own. Yeah, absolutely. It’s like you could put some rosemary in there to buy, you know, yeah.
Amin Jadavji 49:47
might not make as much money but yeah, yeah. No, no, there’s at every level. There’s a bunch of companies that are sort of counter top recruiting generator, sort of small refrigerator size. You can buy kits to put in your garage or your basement or your bedroom. You know, container farm is sort of the smallest level of commercial operation where it’s it’s becomes a business that you run whether, you know, it sort of grows on its own, it doesn’t really but then you spend the weekend selling, right. Our, our focus, like I said, I have an advocate for the industry, we can absolutely feel that that that niche that you talked about, but but elevate farms specifically is really going after mass market, like we see the Walmart stores, but we don’t see the Walmart distribution center that then supplies a bunch of stores in the area, right? Same thing with Amazon, they have no I mean, slight exception, but they don’t really have physical stores, you’re buying stuff online, then it gets to you. So there’s, there’s this whole back end distribution, logistics supply chain that none of us see. Where all of these fresh products are already in distribution somewhere, you know, whether it’s Walmart, or Loblaws, or Amazon or, you know, Gordon Food Service, they all have these products in their distribution network, through their their various, you know, internal warehouses, we are almost at a point where we can grow this in the space that someone is storing it well. So all of these warehouses have, you know, walk in freezers for meats, and they have refrigerated storage for fresh produce. And then they have, you know, dry goods that are at a different temperature. And that’s in these, you know, perhaps 500,000 square foot distribution logistics centers, the portion of that warehouse, in the supply chain of a particular distributor that already has our product, we are at almost the point where with our footprint, we can grow it in that space. And that I think is very telling, because we’re not talking about creating new. No, this is like we’ve we’ve obviously got a lot of work to do to kind of get to that scale. Sure. But But really, the idea is that this could go inside the warehouse of a next day shipper and tie into their existing supply chain to give you fresh farm product, but really not to I mean, maybe we should be really disruptive and say, let’s figure out how to get this right to your door. Right? I’m not saying that I’m saying, let’s figure out how to tie into existing distribution and give people local, high quality food production.
Qasim Virjee 52:49
Yeah, because the infrastructure for and this is, I mean, part of our whole angle on the lessons from last couple of years and disruptions in the supply chain are probably going to come because of you no global factors. So if there are systems that work if there’s companies that are able to feed 50 million people through their logistics that they manage every single day being disrupted for the sake of it, because your startup is kind of disadvantageous here at start well, we see this all the time, right, it’s one of my biggest cautions to people is to not over develop their solution to take on problems they don’t need to solve. But I think you’re on the money. I think this is exciting. Because if you have a modular footprint already in that storage facility, and you’re adding value with plugging elevate farms to replace a fridge with fresh production. Wow, that is a revolution in itself.
Amin Jadavji 53:41
Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s, you could pick any intersection, downtown Toronto or you know, even Suburban. Look out the window at between 530 and seven o’clock and count how many different food delivery bikes and electric scooters and cars are going by? Yeah, criss crossing each other delivering, you know, a meal to you and a meal to your neighbor and a meal to someone else
Qasim Virjee 54:06
Amin Jadavji 54:07
Yeah, but that’s what that’s what we call disruptive technology today, because it’s all on individual platforms, because everyone needs something. I heard a commercial on the radio on the way here saying Order at 1101 and get your groceries delivered at 1201 Oh, that’s great. Like, do I really need to wait to the last second to get my groceries? Like I mean, can I not think about it? Maybe a day? I know what you’re gonna cook man. Yeah, so So I see the merit in groceries. People are ordering peanut butter, you know? Yeah. Well, that’s just state or, you know, if you order on Amazon, you order 12 things you might get nine deliveries.
Qasim Virjee 54:43
Maybe they’re ordering frozen food and they want it quicker so it doesn’t melt. Yeah, that’s it. So ice cream, so
Amin Jadavji 54:50
pretty prepared me I’m very much kind of you know, lowest hanging fruit. I worked very closely with foodservice distribution for 20 years. And they’re looking after that delivery. So why do we need to replicate trucks? Let’s tie into that existing infrastructure? Because it’s not about, like someone is already paying to do that. Why pay again to recreate that? Yeah, we want to plug in. That’s kind of our idea here. So very much. It’s kind of like plain vanilla, you know, white label solution, let’s figure out how to make really good quality food at competitive prices and tie into existing distribution. put it simply, that’s, that’s it. That’s all we’re trying to do. I believe we have superior product, higher nutrients, all those other things, but and it probably should be worth more money. But I think the first step was we want to build infrastructure, and we want to get our products out there.
Qasim Virjee 55:41
I’d like to hear I know that you’ve got experience working across Canada in the US, and you’re doing it again, with with this venture, you’re going to be in the US you were telling me a little bit. What’s your take on being a Canadian venture? open ended question. Yeah,
Amin Jadavji 55:59
yeah, I think it it is an has always been incredibly challenging. We given the US market is obviously much larger, a lot more opportunity. But I think the lack of the level playing field is not in our access to the US market. It’s Canadians, lack of access to the right capital structure. US banks lend money very differently, they have a higher risk appetite. For what if, you know, our loans are sort of Canadian debt is sort of structured around the lowest risk is your house. And everything above that is a lot of risk, right? So you can either get 3% money, and I’m slightly exaggerating, or you get 12% money. And 12 with principal and interest is not sustainable. So now you’re only paying interest. And that means you miss an interest payment, and you’ll lose your business. And three, only applies if you’re blue chip, and you’ve been in business for 20 years. So we’re not able to really compete on the capital funding structure. You know, we can go off on a tangent on VCs and this and we, but but but fundamentally, I think that’s the biggest challenge for Canadians entering the US is we’ve got access to the market. Yeah, we don’t have access to the right capital structure, US companies don’t even know what to do. I mean, an out of state check is a problem, a Canadian check, they don’t even know how to cash it. So. So we are foreign, we are a foreign entity. We are, you know, NAFTA and all this stuff. And they you know, they all appreciate doing business with Canadians, and we look the same and we sound the same. We listen to the same music. In fact, they’re all listening to Canadian music and Toronto artists, right anywhere in the world, you go, you’re gonna hear someone on the radio from Toronto, yeah, or the Toronto area, but we don’t get access to capital the same way that they do in the US, which is kind of a handicap. And so that is, that is difficult.
Qasim Virjee 58:09
I think the story here in Canada in the last few years anyway, has been, like you alluded to is primarily around this kind of like new venture finance, where it’s kind of like capped at $5 million of CapEx, there’s more liquidity for that kind of stuff, especially if it’s equity financing. But once you’re off the ground growth, capital, working capital, businesses need funds constantly. It’s not just about like, you know, we got a bunch of money as an input, and now we’re up and running.
Amin Jadavji 58:40
Yeah, we like there are I think this, you could probably find a lot more experts than me, but we could go on for hours talking about the, the all of the issues around funding ventures and expansion in Canada, I mean, put really, really simply
Amin Jadavji 59:05
we don’t give the right access for our businesses in Canada to scale. We kind of look to private equity will look after that, you know, traditional bank lending will look after that, but not until you have a two year run rate with you know, audited financials and a contract. And I slightly exaggerating, but that’s really a thing. Yeah. So so we don’t, we don’t do that. And so, you know, here we are, we’ve kind of, we think we’ve proven this out, we can point to it and show it and we want to go mass scale and it’s it’s it’s challenging, and it’s challenging, with over 20 years experience in the US market, so like, like How challenging is it or how near impossible is it? You know, without that? Again, I don’t want to beat up on Canada or Canadians, I think we the we don’t do a good job fostering How do I say this? It seems like Canada puts out one massive global scale business every decade. And, and it’s Shopify right now. I mean, obviously them they’re more valuable than RBC, which is unbelievable. And I you probably have more insight but I’d love to know more about their story. Yeah, yeah. I’d love to know more about their story and how did they get there? How do they but
Qasim Virjee 1:00:37
Right Place Right Time? Yeah, yeah. Honestly, in the first in the beginnings of it, it was right place right time. And it snowballed. Of course, access to capital through the dual listing on the public stock exchange help that the liquidity helped growth? Yeah, yeah. And they, they’re very unique in being able to, to have had that corporate will early enough to say, you know, what, we’re going to spend what we need to to hire smart people. And we’re going to kind of like, throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. It’s kind of like, people don’t necessarily have specific job descriptions of Shopify, they have opportunities. It’s kind of like, You’re smart. Figure out some cool stuff. We don’t have outside of Shopify, we generally don’t have that ethos that many companies definitely not publicly traded companies in Canada. So and
Amin Jadavji 1:01:27
and yeah, you could make fun of me because I carry a Blackberry. But you know, that that that was another accompany Yeah, like innovative world, like global Nortel standard them exactly. Yeah. And that seems sort of the way you describe that. hire smart people figure out what to do. Always be innovative, that that’s probably a topic for another conversation. But it is really, really challenging to build that sort of global level of scale. In Canada,
Qasim Virjee 1:02:02
if any of our audience is listening, interested in what you’re doing and want to engage, elevate farms in any particular way. You are here and you’ve got a footprint in Niagara, right.
Amin Jadavji 1:02:14
We’ve got some partner farms, so So yeah, we have a couple farms under a partner model. So it’s like the different business model. Here in the GTA,
Qasim Virjee 1:02:26
in Toronto. Can customers buy that produce?
Amin Jadavji 1:02:29
They they can. And you mentioned the last week you had fresh city farms. Yeah. And fresh city Farms is distributing product from our partner farm and in Niagara off, which goes under the brand vision greens. So that’s there. We have another sort of earlier smaller partner farm in the city that supplies a lot of the local local restaurants. Oliver and Bonacini group if you go into Rosalinda is all vegan Mexican. And you’ll see we the roots plastered all over their menu. So yeah, we’ve got we’ve got some some good, both retail food service, you know, home delivery platforms that are also using that we the rich program. Mom Earth. Okay, organics,
Qasim Virjee 1:03:19
that’s an old school or one right? Like they’ve been around a little bit.
Amin Jadavji 1:03:21
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, if I say 20 years, I’ve been long. I remember
Qasim Virjee 1:03:25
that brand. That was like one of the first like, order a box of fresh veggies to your house people.
Amin Jadavji 1:03:31
It was Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, 20 years ago, the choice was small, medium or large. That was it. Like you get what you get. Yeah. And whatever seasonal? You don’t know. Yeah. Yeah. Which was great. I thought that was brilliant. Now, I don’t know how many 1000s of products they have. And you can customize your basket just like you would with any other grocer. But they do try and keep it a little more boutique niche offering and yeah, so we the roots product, locally grown, locally grown being right in the center of the city, just off the Don Valley Parkway. Midtown Toronto is available through mom Earth. Yeah, there’s our little plug.
Qasim Virjee 1:04:11
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Well, as the company grows as you expand in a foreign territories and and go on the journey of taking this Canadian business globally. I want to hear back we’re gonna have you back in studio. And maybe we’ll put you in the same room as ran and whoever else talking about the future of kind of food security and, and issues of that, because I think that’s its own kind of topic to talk about. The not just impetus for chasing down solutions, but the even customer interest in products that can be produced when you have access to the farmers as opposed to ordering them through 10 middlemen from Venezuela.
Amin Jadavji 1:04:52
Yeah, no, no, I think I think there’s a lot of merit and a lot of, I think more appetite now than pre COVID. So, not that there’s a silver lining, but I think people are concerned about or more concerned about where their food comes from. And you know, food miles was sort of a thing, but it wasn’t kind of a mass market thing. But, you know, when when COVID first started, what was in the headlines was, and you mentioned this with your first settling in East Africa, you couldn’t get toilet paper? Yeah, I was the first thing that ran out. He said, so by chain, I don’t know, how people’s logic was. There’s a pandemic, let me go out there and stuck up on toilet paper. But whatever the logic is, that was one of the first things sort of in the headlines that that we ran out of, and it started with, you know, food rotting in the fields and fields full of tomatoes in California and lettuce and in the UK, and, and all kinds of other things because they weren’t foreign workers and, you know, all kinds of other other aspects of it. But yeah, this is, I think front and center at the moment is food. Food security is an Yeah, relevant topic. Happy to come back at any time and, and continue the dialogue. Awesome, man. It
Qasim Virjee 1:06:13
was a pleasure.
Amin Jadavji 1:06:14
Excellent. Thank you, right