“I’ve always liked solving problems, the harder the better,” Jack Ross tells me when we sit down to talk about his venture, Beanstalk. He comes by this inclination honestly, bearing the family resemblance for problem-solving that is displayed through a mathematician father and engineer brother – Jack also studied engineering at UVA, where he just graduated this past May. There are very few problems as hard – in sweeping size and scope alone – as the one that Jack and his brother Mike founded Beanstalk to solve: feeding an increasing population whose food supplies have not kept up. According to the UN, by 2050, our farms will have to produce 70% more food in order to sufficiently feed the swelling population. This is a statistic that has fascinated and occupied Jack throughout much of his time at UVA, but it only recently turned into a burgeoning family business.
This rarified air of problem magnitude, which could easily have overwhelmed other would-be entrepreneurs, caught the Ross brothers’ attention unexpectedly, on a vacation in California a couple of years ago. The impetus for the trip – Mike, who is five years Jack’s senior, turned 25 and could finally rent a nice convertible in which the brothers could explore the West Coast – took a turn when they noticed a string of big industrial farms along the side of the road. Naturally curious and slightly competitive, the two started posing questions to each other about the amount of resources that these farming giants must consume. “We both have been interested in electricity – it’s a common thing for engineers – so we started googling how much electricity would be involved in some of the aspects of food production.” Turns out, in layman’s terms, it’s a lot. Not only that, but today’s modern farming system takes up a large proportion of our nation’s fresh water, uses a ton of chemicals (which frequently runoff into local bodies of water) and ends up requiring food to be transported over 1500 miles before it reaches its final destination. The result of this system is that food has become more homogenous, less tasty, and less nutritious over time.
The Ross brothers are far from farmers by trade – they’re engineers with a bent toward technology and coding who have already harnessed their unique backgrounds – Mike is a Georgia Tech grad who spent time in the Navy and Jack, as a high school student, created an iPhone app that garnered over 500,000 downloads – to launch one successful business in the past. Jack tells me that the tight-knit duo “loves working together” and had been looking for the right problem to sink their teeth into, ideally one in which they could “build something physical out of the digital world.”
The idea fully clicked into place when they thought about how much of the US population – roughly 85% -- is concentrated in metropolitan areas. When contemplating the best way to make a big impact – one that could save energy in countless ways, create food closer to the end consumers who will ultimately eat it, and produce more quantities of food in shorter growth periods – they began to explore the idea of urban farming in earnest.
By the spring of last year, the idea for Beanstalk: scalable, automated, and sustainable vertical farms (when asked about the name, and whether or not it might have anything to do with the titular fairy tale character who shares a name with this Beanstalk co-founder, Jack said with a chuckle “you can thank my mom for that one”) had begun to truly take shape. The Beanstalk team, putting on their engineering hats to approach the “givens” of a typical farming operation under a new paradigm, was able to turn aspects that had traditionally been seen as roadblocks into “paths toward optimization rather than issues.” Chief among them were: high labor costs (the Beanstalk technology is largely automated) and finding/maintaining a controlled environment among traditional weather elements (Beanstalk uses a homogenous environment as an asset that can be controlled to help speed plant growth and aid viability). According to Ross, with Beanstalk, “we can grow indoors, lower operating costs, and get closer to the consumer…a regular farm might see two harvests a year; [with our technology] we’ll see about ten.” By the fall of 2016, his third year at UVA, Jack and his brother Mike were committed to pursuing Beanstalk, so much so that Jack graduated early (May of 2017) in order to work on the business full-time.
While there are countless attributes that set Beanstalk apart, perhaps their biggest calling card is the IP they’ve developed – in particular, a unique aeroponic system, which forms the “core of the technology” that they use. Aeroponics allow for “200% growth, 95% conservation in water, and 60% conservation in fertilizer” through conveying a fog of water and nutrients directly to the vertical plants. According to Ross, “rather than keeping them sitting in water, we put a fog in the root basin – then turn it off, and the roots just sit in air – that allows them to grow even faster.” The frequency of these fog transmissions – as well as the temperature, humidity, and other factors – is controlled by AI software being fed information from a number of sensors. But this is not the only automated aspect of their technology; Beanstalk is working to remove nearly all hand labor from the process, automating everything from planting the seed to growing, harvesting, and packaging the final product. That final product, in the company’s early stages at least, will consist of large quantities of leafy-greens like kale or spinach, which the startup will sell to distribution centers that purchase high volumes of salads. Many of those in the Central Virginia area have already expressed interest in working with Beanstalk.
So far, they’ve built a few prototypes, and they’ve been working on a much larger one at the i.Lab this summer. When asked why the brothers have decided to root Beanstalk in Charlottesville, Jack mentioned the unique nature of the town’s location and university community as a great boon to their business – “they get urban farming more quickly” and are often eager to help. The connections he has made thus far have been invaluable – they’ve already sought out the advice of experts in the myriad fields that their business model touches, and local government has been open to and supportive of the idea and its founders. But Beanstalk’s ultimate vision is to have farms in every city across the world, drastically decreasing energy waste and creating more nutritious and tasty food for generations to come. To get there, Jack will take a cue from his big brother’s military mindset to solve their biggest problem yet – “if you look at the whole problem at a time, it can be very overwhelming. Our code of conduct is one iteration at a time.” There's no doubt that this duo will keep climbing, and there's no telling where the twisting vertical vines of urban farming will lead them.