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Jason Green of Upward Farms: “Getting back to the tipping point”

In the near term, we have the opportunity to create a local supply chain at national or even global scale. That’s a massive departure from the geographic consolidation that exists in food today, which has resulted in the consolidation of risks like foodborne illness and supply chain disruptions. In the long term, I think we have […]

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In the near term, we have the opportunity to create a local supply chain at national or even global scale. That’s a massive departure from the geographic consolidation that exists in food today, which has resulted in the consolidation of risks like foodborne illness and supply chain disruptions.

 In the long term, I think we have the opportunity to bring what we learn indoors back out to the broad acre. The soil microbiome has been tragically degraded. It’s been shown that ecologically-managed soil has up to one billion microbial cells per gram of soil, whereas chemically treated soils might have as little as ten thousand microbial cells per gram of soil. Why does that matter? Because more microbiological density directly correlates to health (e.g. yields, nutrition, safety). 

 One complication with studying the soil microbiome? 99% of microbes found in soil are “non-culturable” — they’ve never successfully been grown in a lab or industrial environment, only observed in their native ecosystems. By growing complete ecosystems indoors, we have the ability to study 100% of the soil microbiome, commercialize those learnings, and take them back out to native soils to remediate them from decades of chemical overuse. As an indoor farm, we’re unique in our vision to take our learnings back out to the broad acre.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Green, CEO and Cofounder of Upward Farms, a Brooklyn-based indoor aquaponic farm sustainably growing leafy greens and fish with the highest ecological and quality standards. Jason started his career developing technologies to improve the performance of the most complex system in the known universe: the human brain. As a neuroscience researcher at Albert Einstein Medical School and a Howard Hughes research fellow, Jason built virtual reality technology to help rehabilitate patients who had lost the ability to walk.

When indoor agriculture emerged in the US, Jason was inspired to merge his expertise in bioengineering with his passions for environmentalism and deliciousness. He identified a breakthrough approach to indoor agriculture — whole ecosystems that were a paradigm shift in productivity and scalability compared to status quo production methods dependent upon synthetic chemicals.

Jason seized the opportunity to build an indoor farming company that could benefit from and enhance the brilliance of nature. Applying his know-how in designing controlled environments that could optimize the performance of biology, Jason started Upward Farms in 2013 with a focus on the microbiome, which he views as the brain of plants and the key driver of their development. Upward Farms — then Edenworks — initially launched in Brooklyn grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market. Reconnecting eaters with flavorful, nutritious, local food, the greens quickly earned consumer loyalty to become the salad category leader where sold.

Upward Farms has attracted investors and top talent thanks to Jason’s 20-year vision to create a sustainable future for the food system by advancing the importance of the microbiome in both indoor and outdoor agriculture. Under Jason’s leadership, Upward Farms has developed the leading approaches in indoor agriculture for massive scalability and cost effectiveness; in plant science through the microbiome; and in automation through vastly simplified system design. Jason has been recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 and the Global Aquaculture Alliance 30 Under 30.

Today, Upward Farms has raised 20 million dollars in funding and is expanding to a new facility that will increase production by 20 times to supply grocers across New York City and beyond. Jason credits the success of Upward Farms to the collective talent and passion of his team. A proud Brooklynite, he lives in Williamsburg with his wife, a Registered Dietitian and colleague at Upward Farms, and baby.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m a scientist by background. My personal philosophy is that the purpose of science is to better the human condition, so I’ve always worked on problems that make life better. Earlier in my career, I focused on developing technologies to improve the performance of the most complex system in the known universe: the human brain. Specifically, I worked on teams developing virtual reality technologies to help rehabilitate patients who had lost the ability to walk. We were creating these immersive VR environments where we could control basically the complete sensory experience for the patient, and through those unique sensory conditions, we could drive better performance (in that case, improving the patient’s ability to walk).
 
 When indoor agriculture emerged in the US, I saw a lot of similarities. In indoor farms, operators are creating the complete “sensory experience” for their plants — nutrition, climate, etc. That, to me, was an exciting parallel for someone coming from a bioengineering background and with passion for the environment and deliciousness. What was missing was the “brain” part of it. What became clear was that the microbiome was the “brain” for plants — it’s where the majority of genetic activity lives, and therefore is responsible for turning the environment farmers design into outcomes like yield, nutrition, quality, or safety. 
 
 The technical leap of controlled environments for humans to controlled environments for plants was a more straightforward one. The professional leap from scientist to co-founder / CEO required a lot more learning that I’m still doing.

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Let’s start with the impact. We’re growing food for people, not trucks or planes or because they’re compatible with pesticides (yikes!). We’re growing outrageously delicious and super nutritious microgreen salads and sustainably farmed fish. We grow these products locally, so they’re super fresh, and with unparalleled safety. Leafy greens — a food that’s not just healthy, but essential to wellbeing — are the #1 cause of foodborne illness in the US. We’re helping families eat with confidence, as we’ve demonstrated the ability to prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens, like E. coli, with 100% ecological approaches, no chemicals. On the fish front, imported seafood (which is 90% of the US market) is the most mistrusted food in America, and the flip side of that is local seafood is the most demanded.
 
 The breakthroughs in Upward Farms approach is blending the greatest hits of ecological and controlled environment agriculture. The benefits of ecological farming (think organic or regenerative practices) are higher yields, disease resistance, safety, and sustainability. The benefits of controlled environment agriculture is that you can grow anywhere in the world, regardless of climate, in a repeatable process. 
 
 That’s the bleeding edge: creating a scalable, repeatable (and very economically attractive) ecological farming model.

How do you think this might change the world?

In the near term, we have the opportunity to create a local supply chain at national or even global scale. That’s a massive departure from the geographic consolidation that exists in food today, which has resulted in the consolidation of risks like foodborne illness and supply chain disruptions.
 
 In the long term, I think we have the opportunity to bring what we learn indoors back out to the broad acre. The soil microbiome has been tragically degraded. It’s been shown that ecologically-managed soil has up to one billion microbial cells per gram of soil, whereas chemically treated soils might have as little as ten thousand microbial cells per gram of soil. Why does that matter? Because more microbiological density directly correlates to health (e.g. yields, nutrition, safety). 
 
 One complication with studying the soil microbiome? 99% of microbes found in soil are “non-culturable” — they’ve never successfully been grown in a lab or industrial environment, only observed in their native ecosystems. By growing complete ecosystems indoors, we have the ability to study 100% of the soil microbiome, commercialize those learnings, and take them back out to native soils to remediate them from decades of chemical overuse. As an indoor farm, we’re unique in our vision to take our learnings back out to the broad acre.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

The opposite, actually. There are so many things about food and agriculture today that are dystopian — Interstellar’s cornfields and dust bowls don’t seem far off. I’d like to think that the alternate future we’re creating is more Willy Wonka meets Pandora (the planet in Avatar).

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Let me start by saying that I think that microbiology is the most exciting technology area today. It’s the richest, most unexplored, untapped genetic database. The next 20 years of biological innovation, and a massive amount of global economic activity and growth, will be driven not by synthetic biology or suppressing biology (the chemical companies of yore), but by understanding and unlocking the power of the microbiological world around us.
 
 Despite 50 years of genetics research, it’s only within the past few years that the scientific community has recognized that 50–90% of the genetic activity in the “big” biology that you can see (plants, animals) is actually happening in the “invisible” biology that you can’t see — the microbiome, or the layer of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in and around all that “big” biology. 
 
 Improving the microbiome for agriculture applications drives what we do at Upward Farms. And with COVID-19, for example, you’re seeing how much uncharted territory there is in microbiology. A virus that belongs to the same family as the common cold has caught the whole world, including vaccinologists and vaccine makers, effectively flat footed.
 
 Getting back to the tipping point, as I saw the indoor agriculture industry emerging, there seemed to be an underweighting of the power and opportunity for the microbiome. My read of the science was that the microbiome was the key to unlocking lower costs (i.e. higher yields), massive scale (i.e. system stability and disease resistance, and safety (leafy greens being the #1 cause of foodborne illness in the US. 
 
 The popular narrative was the opposite — newly founded indoor ag firms explained how by growing under clean room conditions, they could control exactly what plants needed when they needed it. But isn’t that exemplary of everything that’s gone wrong in medicine and agriculture for the last 50 years? “Germs are bad” led the world to blast households and farms alike with toxic substances: antimicrobial soaps, overused antibiotics, ever more pesticides. To what end? More humans have chronic diseases than ever. Farms and hospitals are the largest sources of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” And farm conditions have been degraded to unsalvageable levels, both in terms of soil loss as well as in economics (profitability for farms vs the companies serving those farms curiously seem to have trended in opposite directions).

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

This ties back to your earlier question and my worry about the trajectory that humans and our planet Earth are on. There’s decades of momentum that’s driven greater awareness about human’s runaway parasitism of the environment, but that’s only delivered incremental changes, where massive action is required. Business as usual should have been over a long time ago.
 
 COVID has been a shock in so many ways, and one of the things that’s become abundantly clear is that the risks of consolidation, globalization, and outsourcing hadn’t been priced into so many products, supply chains, and markets. In the US, the land of abundance, there was actual food scarcity — not enough product on shelves to satisfy demand — because these essential industries (meat processors being one of the better known examples) are consolidated to a few operators clustered in limited geographies.
 
 To underscore the opportunity for local, vertical farming, 95% of US leafy greens production today comes from just two counties, Salinas, CA and Yuma, AZ. That’s why when there’s a recall on leafy greens, you might see a huge portion of the salad wall, or, say, all romaine, get recalled. As vertical farms scale, we can create a supply chain that’s more resilient than anything that’s come before — secure, local production under a mature, streamlined, national or global brand.
 
 After getting a handle on the market opportunity, especially the growth in the local and organic food segments, as well as a sense of the competitive landscape for indoor farms, it felt to me that there was an opportunity to create massive value and asymmetrical returns through a microbiome-optimized indoor farm.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

There’s perhaps no higher virtue in food than transparency. We strive to give our consumers visibility into how we grow and who we are. We have 20,000+ followers on Instagram today and every day add Posts and Stories, and actively engage with our online community.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This question really resonates for me. First off, I’ll express gratitude for my co-founders and team. I’m one person, but I have an incredible team that inspires me every day and has me addicted to wanting to serve and support them. Shameless plug, we’re hiring a ton these days, and you can find all of our opportunities at eatupwardfarms.com/careers
 
 My wife, Debi, actually works with me at Upward Farms. It’s a gift to be able to create something massive together. We’ve matured as a family because of the professional opportunities we’ve had to be structured, disciplined, ambitious, and goal oriented together. Debi is patient with me (even when I accuse her otherwise) and holds me accountable when my obsession with the company we’re building together becomes imbalanced with everything else we want out of life and for our family.
 
 I am who and where I am today, and capable of accomplishing a lifetime more, because of the mentoring and coaching I’ve had throughout my career. What’s interesting is that many of these mind-altering, life-changing mentoring experiences came from “senior” counterparts treating me as an equal. I’ll share a few of these stories, working back in time over my career.
 
 Our lead investors at Upward Farms, Suzanne Fletcher and Dakin Sloss at Prime Movers Lab, describe their CEOs as their partners. So on the one hand, the partners invest considerable time in providing me with world-class coaching, while at the same time making sure it always feels like we’re side-by-side in the cockpit, building the plane as we fly it.
 
 One of our early investors and someone who became a coach to me was a cofounder and the key executive in building one of the tier-1 management consulting groups — he’s very private, so I’ll keep his name off the record. This is a person who’s guided Fortune 100 CEOs and Boards, and has always coached me as if I’m already at that level. It’s been a relationship of colleagues built on trust.
 
 Going all the way back, I had fantastic training as an aspiring scientist by a brilliant neuroscientist, John Jeka. John ran an intimate lab with just a handful of young scientists (undergraduate through post-doc) under him, yet gave a massive amount of autonomy (later in my career, in larger labs, I had a rude awakening). John modeled how to live a life of curiosity, have fun doing it, and how to help others to answer their driving questions. I still think of myself as a “recovering scientist”, which has probably served me as a CEO. Curiosity and measurability are powerful tools for leadership.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Every day that we exist, every ounce of product that we ship, is a mouthful of deliciousness and nourishment. To eat it is an act of self love. To share it is a celebration.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“What you do is who you are.” Ben Horowitz recently popularized this idea in his book of the same name. One concept that Ben makes clear is virtues (what you do) vs values (what you believe). “What I do is who I am” has become somewhat of a mantra for me.
 
 What if we all stopped liking, commenting, judging, preaching, canceling…and just started doing?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You are the author of the story of your life.” There are two key ideas here. One, that thing you call “your life” is just a story — you’re the main character, you’ve got a supporting cast, and you’re traveling along some plot. Which brings us to two, what’s the plot? An epic adventure? Romantic comedy? Horror flick? Have you ever seen the trailers where movies get recut, like Mrs. Doubtfire recut into a horror movie or The Exorcist recut into a comedy? For a fantastic primer on “the story I’m telling myself,” check out Brene Brown’s “The power of vulnerability” TED talk.
 
 When I find myself feeling bummed, less than great about myself, frustrated, angry, like a victim, or other emotions that aren’t resourceful, I try to stop and ask, “what’s the story I’m telling myself?” That’s not to say that my story or anyone’s story doesn’t contain adversity or pain, and I don’t have the fantasy that I’m actually in control of everything that influences in my life, but I have found that when I remember that I control the narrative, I’m a lot more resourceful and infinitely kinder to myself and others. 
 
 As long as I’m the author of the story of my life, I decide what happens next. After all, isn’t that why we tune in?

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Upward Farms grows leafy greens and fish with the highest ecological and quality standards so that everyone can nourish their body, family, and the planet. 
 
 With 95% of leafy greens grown on the West Coast and 90% of seafood imported, our mission is to heal the broken food system and reconnect eaters with flavorful and nutritious local food. 
 
 Also, check out my earlier comments on why I think the microbiome is the most exciting technology space today and probably for the next two decades.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow Upward Farms on Instagram and Twitter @eatupwardfarms. I’m @jasongreengrows.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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