Indoor farming is in the future, IUNU’s Allison Kopf told AFN . Rather than view indoor farming as the savior of our broken food system, we instead need to focus on crops that make economic sense to grow indoors and the technologies we can use to enable that.
Allison Kopf is the founder of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) company Artemis, which indoor ag technology startup IUNU acquired in 2021, integrating Artemis’ offering into its system. Now, as IUNU’s chief marketing officer and head of data products, Kopf is continuing her efforts to promote CEA as a solution for climate change and food insecurity, describing it as “a tool in the toolbox” for ensuring climate and food resiliency.
In a recent conversation with AFN, Kopf (AK) discussed how IUNU’s role in this, the evolution of CEA, and the future for women in agtech.
AFN: Will we ever grow more than just leafy greens, and the odd tomato or strawberry, at scale in vertical farms?
AK: I don’t know that we have to.
Indoor farming in general, whether it’s greenhouse or vertical farming, is a tool in a toolbox. People have spouted a lot of noise for a long time about how it’s the end-all-be-all solution to feeding the world. And I think that messaging point is wrong. I think we need to be talking about this as a tool in the toolbox for how we have climate resiliency and food resiliency as a society moving forward.
If you think about it from that lens, you start to say, “Well, what crops make sense to move indoors?” Leafy greens makes a ton of sense. Vine crops — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers — makes a ton of sense. Then you start to see food like berries potentially starting to move indoors. But it doesn’t have to be everything.
It likely will never make economic sense to grow everything indoors unless the external factors and triggers and levers start to change. So the reason leafy greens makes a ton of sense to grow indoors [is that the plants] grow really fast. It’s economically profitable. It’s short physically, so that you can stack it in a vertical farming system, and CEA makes a lot of sense for the genetics.
You’re going to start to have some of these other crops that start to make fiscal sense to grow indoors at some point because something externally is going to change. The weather conditions are going to be such that you can no longer grow X outside, so you have to find a way to grow it indoors. The systems’ cost is going to come down and therefore it will start to make sense to move indoors.
AFN: How might a system like IUNU’s help?
AK: We have two pieces of our system, the Luna CMP [cultivation management platform], which is formerly Artemis, that [helps] manual processes that used to be pen-and-paper move digital for the first time. Then you have the advanced version, which is Luna AI, [comprising] computer vision and cameras that are looking at your plants 24/7.
That advanced technology can start to detect things before the human eye can. [We can] think about how to apply that to phenotyping, to genotyping, to all of the processes involved in genetics, to actually expand the ability to [grow crops] indoors.
One of the challenges that [the industry has] right now is you’re limited by your growing system type, the genetics, and the environment that you have.
But [now we] can start to visually detect and identify things and build autonomy on top of that, and start to do things like true optimization. We can start to tweak the growing systems and processes, creating better recipes and [standard operating procedures] for how to grow different crops indoors at economic scale.
AFN: Will we see a more definite split between growers and technologists in the future in CEA?
AK: Im about 2010-2011, we started to see the first wave of venture-backed indoor farming in North America. So now you had a different investor with a different motivation and a different risk appetite investing in the industry. Now you had this concept of borrowing from the tech industry but applying it to agriculture, so the mentality was different. It became [about scaling] this business up and thinking about how we could own technology-driven margins in an agricultural business. That’s a different story that starts to need proprietary technology as its backbone. So we started to see companies fully vertically integrated. And I mean that as a business, not as a growing system.
Now there are lights that are pretty standard. You have software that’s pretty standard, you have hardware that’s pretty standard. You’re starting to have autonomy, even, that’s standard.
That’s coupled with affordable finance coming in. Now that you have debt and affordable finance, you don’t have to be venture-backed for your facilities any longer […] Project finance or innovative [finance] allows you to finance off-the-shelf technology.
You don’t have to be really, fully vertically integrated anymore. Now we’ve started that wave, you’re going to see a lot of these technology companies, or agricultural technology companies, start to use technology companies as their powering infrastructure.
If you don’t have to be a grower, a financier, a market produce marketer, a de facto distributor, a technology company, a software company, a hardware company, a growing systems company – if you don’t have to do all of that, you can focus in on what your business model truly is.
AFN: Have you seen the role of women in agtech change substantially over time?
AK: Women have always played a major role in agriculture, but often those roles have been behind the scenes. If we look at farm ownership in conventional agriculture and venture funding into agtech companies, the majority of ownership sits with men. We need to invest more in women and we need to invest bigger checks into female-founded businesses. Women are building hugely valuable companies and receiving only 2% of venture capital dollars. That has to change. And it is. There are so many fantastic female founders in the agtech industry. I can’t wait to see what they build.
AFN: What do you say to women interested in joining the industry?
AK: Come on in! There are incredible women leaders in this industry. Many women have built and exited agtech companies now and there are pathways open for more female founders. It’s not easy, but “nothing worth doing is easy,” to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt. And if you’re building a company, reach out to me. I’m investing in female founders at XFactor Ventures.