Startup Fresno creates automated modules for growing food
Ethan Mora is a lawyer, blockchain expert, inventor, and founder of Vertical AgriTech Inc., a Fresno-based startup that hopes to commercialize “The Alchemist,” a standalone plant growing module. Contributed photo
Written by Frank Lopez
The convergence of food and technology in everyday life is more apparent today than at any time in human history.
In seconds, people can search for any recipe or cooking video. Online food ordering and delivery platforms such as DoorDash and UberEats have become household names since their inception almost eight years ago.
More Americans are planting their own home gardens, and according to a report by market research firm Packaged Facts, 26% of U.S. consumers surveyed said they were planting a home garden because of the pandemic.
Computers and the cloud are changing the way crops are irrigated, seeds are germinated, livestock are tracked and more.
A local startup – which is part of the Fresno State Center for Water, Energy and Technology (WET) Business Accelerator Program called Valley Ventures – is using all of these innovative methods and in development for its own gardening product.
Based in Fresno, Vertical AgriTech Inc. is an agrotech start-up developing growing software and smart devices for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). The Vertical AgriTech team has developed a flagship product, the “Alchemist”, a programmable indoor garden.
The company has been part of Valley Venture’s sixth cohort since its inception in 2017. Accelerator program companies benefit from mentoring experiences and engagement opportunities with leaders in the agriculture industry and of technology.
CEO Ethan Mora is a lawyer, blockchain expert, inventor and founder of the company with celebrity chief and CIO Cassidy Hallman and IT and CTO Allesandro Bassi.
The ‘Alchemist’ connects to Vertical AgriTech’s proprietary web application, ‘Room2Table’, which allows ‘taste makers’ (subscribers) to visually monitor and control the indoor garden from anywhere in the world and to interact with other creators of taste.
Taste makers can be people who grow up in their own homes or restaurants that grow on the premises.
“These technologies are truly the foundation on which we are building a self-sustaining, data-driven food community capable of rapidly exchanging information across the world while producing exciting nutritious ingredients in a hyper-local way,” said Mora.
Mora said Fresno was the perfect starting point for the business. As a native of Fresno, he wanted to return to the Central Valley with the ultimate goal of creating a decentralized farming community based on his network of programmable, modular, affordable and aesthetic indoor gardens that use little space and resources.
The “Alchemist” is currently not commercially available, but in beta testing with a restaurant in Hollywood and a few mushroom growers in Seattle.
There are plans to launch the indoor garden at a restaurant in Fresno in three months, and with some gardeners to fix some issues and improve the user experience.
Mora said he has always had an interest in finding solutions to complex problems.
While in law school, Mora got really interested in cryptocurrency and once he started working in a law firm he was the resident expert on emerging issues in that space.
Eventually, Mora started his own business and was able to work on complex cryptocurrency litigation, but realized that the issues he wanted to find solutions to would not be crypto-related.
Mora became aware of the supply chain issues and blockchain products that were working to address these issues in the food and agriculture space. He reached out to friends about his idea of using blockchain to improve the food supply chain and make the exchange of local vendors and vendors more efficient.
Mora had met the CIO of Vertical AgriTech Hallman through friends of his wife. Last year he asked Hallman if he had any experience with microgreens. As it turned out, Hallman had worked with microgreens while employed at the 5 star hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Hallman develops recipes that coordinate with harvest calendars and creates engaging content that shows people that chefs can easily grow their own microgreens.
The team hopes to be able to extend the technology to large-scale operations such as greenhouses and is working on this aspect as part of the Valley Ventures program.
The team is working to reduce the costs of “The Alchemist” and see it used in schools to help more people access healthy food.
It is expected that “The Alchemist” could be incorporated on platforms such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home so that a subscriber can verify their garden.
There are microgreens farmers in town and the team want to partner with companies like Central Valley Mushrooms to get them to use their camera pod so they can advertise their products directly to consumers and restaurants.
In about six months, Mora hopes to have an industrial design plan to produce “The Alchemist” on a larger scale.
“Our goal is really to show everyone that they can be a farmer and enjoy growing up with us as part of our community of taste makers,” said Mora.