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Bay Area brothers hope to feed the world with their robotic indoor farming technology

Linda Zavoral, The Mercury News on

Published in Science & Technology News

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- You'll forgive the Bertram brothers if their Silicon Valley elevator pitch is as fast-paced as a doubles match. After all, they moved from Melbourne, Australia, to the United States to play collegiate tennis, then developed a love for engineering and robotics -- and a lofty goal to meet the world's nutritional needs.

Less than a decade after arriving in California, they co-founded OnePointOne, an agricultural technology company, and Willo, their direct-to-consumer health and lifestyle brand.

Their entrepreneurial "garage" is a two-story-tall indoor vertical farm in San Jose where we met up with CEO Samuel (a Santa Clara University graduate) and CTO John (Westmont College, Technical University of Munich). After checking out the technology, gawking at the hundreds of red mizuna plants carefully nurtured by growers, engineers and robots, and nibbling on just-harvested, state-of-the-art basil, it was time to ask some questions.

Q: How did you two hit upon this idea for a vertical farming start-up?

A: Sam: There are 1.1 billion people that began this millennium malnourished. Think about that number for a moment. Galvanized by its magnitude, John and I named our vertical farming company OnePointOne (OPO) as a constant reminder of what we are aiming to solve. Compounding the problem: Poor nutrition kills more people in the U.S.A. than anything else, including cigarettes. Plants have always been, and will continue to be, the solution to the problem of malnourishment and diet-related disease. Our technology -- through production and plant research -- intends to solve these problems.

Willo is the first revolutionary step in this direction. It is the direct-to-consumer brand of our company. By allowing you to configure and control what you grow in your Willo Farm Plot, we can work together to personalize your nutrition, and use plant-based food as the primary tool for preventative medicine that it has always been.

 

Q: How does Willo's OnePointOne technology differ from other indoor farming methods?

A: John: Willo's high-performance indoor farming technology is different from any other indoor or outdoor farm. We use LED lights to supplant the sun, we use a nutrient-rich mist to replace the soil, and a clean-room environment to keep the plants safe, comfortable and away from the dangers of the outdoors. We are the only organization in the world to grow plants out of tall vertical towers using aeroponics (which is a form of hydroponics using a nutrient-rich mist). And we use fleet robotics to perform many of the functions inside of our farm -- everything from plant seeding, plant movement and plant inspection.

Q: An early client of yours is chef David Kinch's new Mentone restaurant in Aptos. He calls basil the "spirit animal" for that Cal-Mediterranean concept. So you've got a three-Michelin-starred chef who wants high-quality basil year-round. No pressure there! How did you develop a basil that meets his standards?

A: Sam: Chef Kinch offered us a challenge to replicate the quality of a specific basil variety grown in Pra, Italy. Through many months of varying the size, shape, taste and texture of the basil, we arrived at precisely the product he was looking for. Now we are the sole supplier of Ligurian Genovese basil to his restaurant.

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