Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jack Griffin didn’t start his professional career with farming on the mind. He studied economics and physics, not horticulture, and ended up working as a Wall Street executive. However, it’s the combination of his experience and skillset that led to him opening a revolutionary vertical farm in 2014 in his native Philadelphia, Penn. — Metropolis Farms, the first to be located on the second floor of a building. Griffin and his team, including business partner Lee Weingrad, are in the process of opening the first solar energy-powered vertical farm on the fourth floor of the same building and producing the equivalent amount of produce as a 700-acre outdoor farm. Produce Grower sat down with Griffin to find out how he made the successful transition from Wall Street to deep water culture, how his technology differs from other systems currently available, and what he’s doing to make vertical farms more accessible to potential growers.
Produce Grower: Describe your career path and how it led you into vertical farming.
Jack Griffin: My educational background is in physics and economics. … I [was] the president of Merchant Banking on Wall Street, [at] The Capital Resource Group, a company that focuses on small to mid-sized companies from their initial financing through the private placement market. Two extremely wealthy folks came to [me] and wanted to raise $25 million for [a vertical farming project] when the industry was three years old. I’m the guy that said no … because the math that I was given made no sense. There was no proof.
I’m looking at this and I go you know what? This is a phenomenal idea, but it doesn’t work on paper. It’s not economically sustainable. Obviously, the project failed.
It was something that always bothered me. I started messing with it as a hobby, and then one day it became an obsession and I quit my job. I bought the equipment they had and spent years refining it, correcting it, studying it, looking at the errors. Once I had an enormous list of everything that was wrong, that was my work product.
PG: When did Metropolis Farms officially launch?
JG: As my excellent science project it started before this, but as a corporation Metropolis Farms started in 2014. We started selling crops about six months after we started.
PG: How did you choose the name Metropolis Farms?
JG: I saw a really cool name — it was a company called Gotham Greens. So I said if you’re going to pick Batman, I’ll pick Superman.
PG: What is the company’s tagline, and how does it reflect your overall goal to expand vertical farming’s reach?
JG: It’s not one I think people are likely to expect from us — “Join the revolution.” Because we need to feed the revolution and find better ways of [growing food]. I’m not saying our way is the only way, but it’s one of them. We’re more than a vertical farm. We’re an indoor growing technology company. How do you grow it better? How do you make it more accessible? How many people want to be farmers that can’t? How many empty buildings are there in cities? How do we access that? How do we rebuild these places? If we’re all moving back to cities, which is what the demographics all show, what’s it look like in 20 years if we don’t have this infrastructure in place? You never get to [vertical farming advocate] Dickson Despommier’s dream [of large buildings with multilevel farms]. You never get to the glass tower because no one has the building blocks to build it because no one [can] access capital markets to afford it.
PG: What barriers do you see for growers to get into vertical farming?
JG: The first physical barrier is energy cost. The second physical barrier is BTU management cost. The more energy you put out, the more light you put out, the more energy you have to manage in terms of getting rid of that heat.
The third barrier to entry is scalable modularity and [the fourth is] cleaning and maintenance. It’s really easy to build a vertical farm and watch it fall apart. The day you build it, it starts to degrade because of the bacteria that’s in the system. A lot of our patents relate to maintenance.
The fifth is the economic modalities. Where are you going to sell it? It’s not “if we build it they will come,” because they won’t. [We focus on] institutional purchase — universities, colleges, schools, prisons. We’re pre-selling our produce to those groups because they’re a virtual bottomless pit against our demand. [We also sell to supermarkets], but those relationships take a great deal of time to develop.
PG: There are many functional vertical farm systems already. Why did you “recreate the wheel” with your own technology?
JG: If I took whatever you're driving for a car right now and said, “I guarantee you if you give me enough money, I’ll make it go 200 miles an hour. It won’t be efficient. You’re not going to like your car when I’m done, and it’s probably going to break in a couple of hours, but it will go 200 miles an hour.” It’s the beginning of the learning curve [for vertical farming].
I pulled out my brick phone at a meeting and explained it. In 1984 [it] cost $4,000, which is the equivalent today of almost $10,000. It's the most expensive cell phone ever made and makes phone calls for half an hour and then it dies. That's it. But at the time it was the most advanced phone in the world. Because we spent the money on that, today we have iPhones. But you had to go through it.
Now you're into the commercial era where you've got a number of people like myself who are looking at [vertical farming] and saying, “If it’s not economically viable, then it’s not viable.”
PG: Tell me more about Revolution Vertical Farming Technology, the manufacturing division of Metropolis Farms that's responsible for building and licensing the proprietary vertical farm systems.
JG: “The Science of Indoor Growing” is the tagline. [If you think of Metropolis Farms like a triangle], you put food production at the top of the triangle, and at the base of the triangle are two other pieces: [Revolution Vertical Farming Technology] manufacturing, and food optimization, which is research and development. From a profitability perspective, [manufacturing brings in more capital because] you’ve got to sell a lot of lettuce to equate to a $20,000 tower. So clearly you can build towers and make money on them, but I’m really focused on building towers that other people can make money on, too.
I probably have close to $20 million in letters of intent right now. We have so much demand for the product and our current production [space] gets swallowed up by opportunities really fast.
[Our question is] do you have the most advanced technology in the world, or the optimum technology? Because we have the optimum technology. Our technology brings price, value and everything to one point. If it’s not optimum, it’s not advanced — it’s over-engineered. We’re not growing for NASA. We’re growing for people in north Philly that need food. And if we never build a system because it’s too expensive, nobody gets to eat. The reason we managed to get so many patents is because no one thought about these things from this perspective.
Also, because we control the hardware, we can control what goes on it. We have a couple of wacky ideas. One, no GMOs. Two, if you’re going to work with our equipment, you agree to equal pay for equal work. Three, you can’t discriminate against people for any reason. There is a social component to it.
PG: What makes your technology different from existing systems?
JG: Every component in our [vertical farming] system can be hot swapped in less than two minutes. That makes it so much easier to work with. Being able to build them [ourselves], our systems are modular. The typical time to build a vertical farm takes nine months to a year. We prebuild everything and they go up in a matter of days.
We created a factory where we could prebuild all of the parts and all of the components and bank them so that they go up like Legos, and they can all be disconnected and broken down the same way. If you lose a pump in a [traditional] vertically stacked farm, you’re pretty much out of business for a day by the time you remove all the water, get everything out, replace your pump and so on. We isolated every major component.
If all your components are prebuilt and all you’re doing is making the connections, the other difference is everybody else is building a farm, which is a construction project. What we’re doing is we’re providing a device because it’s a patent.
It’s built for production. It’s built for the ability to maximize the profitability and the ability for workers to do meaningful work versus drudge work. Part of our technology allows us to slow down or speed up growth by 15 percent either way. So I can create a supply chain.
My system works as deep water culture (DWC). It works as a shallow. It works as a nutrient film technique (NTF). It words as a flood-and-drain. It works as a trickle. You can do all of the various major systems of growing. It’s a matter of a few adjustments. We [also] have a system that has aeroponic elements as well as hydroponic elements that’s in it. I think it’s the best of both worlds.
We developed our own lighting using a common [ceramic metal halide] bulb and reconfigured it. We added robotics, too.
We built them for the real world. I’m trying to build an industry. I want to make sure we get the technology out there.
PG: You consider your technology to be open architecture and encourage users to share problems and suggestions for improvement. How do you think this approach will benefit the system’s development?
JG: Our goal is to create a [standardized] system that anybody can touch. Our model works, and the more people that touch our stuff, the easier it is to [develop it and] grow more. I can use a stable platform that can cost effectively do all this and then throw resources at optimizing that platform rather than everyone having a home-brewed, separate platform that only they know how to work.
You have to have a standard platform. That’s the most important thing. But you have to be brave about it as well. You have to be willing to accept that there’s always the guy that’s going to steal your stuff because of that. And you’re going to have to spend the time to protect it. I don’t even want to patent half this stuff, but if I don’t patent it, some SOB is going to do it and block everybody from using it.
This whole thing of “Leave it alone. It’s mine and I have the secret sauce, and you can’t have it unless you pay me mad money” — that’s not how you create an industry. You create an industry by creating a ubiquitous platform that everybody can use.
I’ve spent a career apologizing to people for the fact that when I talk I’m not actually angry, I’m from Philadelphia. This is how a Philadelphian talks. — Jack Griffin, Metropolis Farms
PG: How do you reduce pest and disease pressure in your vertical farm?
JG: You make your systems hostile to anaerobic bacteria and you don’t have to worry about [that]. Now if you’re referring to mold spores, that sort of stuff, my HEPA filter takes care of that. We have, in going on three years, never gotten a disease, and we don’t have bugs.
People do bring in bugs, but [we use a trap plant] we created, [called] the Terminator. It’s voracious. We also use pitcher plants and things like that. But the nice part about these ones is they’re ever blooming. They don’t die. We’ve never had a major bug problem.
The accelerated rate of growth takes care of most disease-based problems. The major disease-based problems you have in vertical farms relate to poor cleaning habits and poor maintenance habits associated with most vertical farms. Our entire array of patents revolves around a modular system that allows you to take it down and clean your entire tower in about a half an hour. If you’re not clean, you’re done because your farm is a time bomb. I generally like to see them done once every three months because it just takes minutes.
PG: You’re not the only new produce grower in the area. Is there enough demand to sustain the addition of new growers?
JG: The food market is so large, respectfully, that it’s a bottomless pit. Are you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? What’s your first need? Air. Second is water. Third is food. We’re not worried about energy, housing, status, anything else if you don’t have food, right?
It may not be the largest by dollar volume, [but] how many people buy diamonds and how many people eat food? Transactionally, [food] is larger than almost everything [unless] they start selling air and water.
PG: How do you see food and vertical farming as a vehicle for social change?
JG: Go to the Bible. Go to the Talmud. Go to the Koran. Go to any book or religion and I guarantee you you’re going to see a centric thread on food. Nothing touches us as much as that because nothing is more communal. Sunday dinners. Going out with mom. How much of our lives centers around food?
So to me if you want to create social awareness, social change, if you want to impact society, this is the space. There are people out there that aren’t going to [care about] the value of these strawberries we have. They just want a really good-tasting strawberry. But when they bought it [from our vertical farm], you know what they did? They supported the potential for solar [energy]. They supported local people working. They supported disadvantaged veterans and felons working.
PG: How exactly are you supporting veterans and felons?
JG: Thirty percent of my staff [of about 10] are felons and 60 percent of my staff are veterans — and there's an overlap between those numbers.
[Also,] we’re creating a program to train [prisoners so] that when they get out of prison they’ll have a job. I’m already talking to the Department of Corrections. The guy that started me on the concept was a guy named Joe Sibilia, a social entrepreneur out of Massachusetts. How many people can we get involved that we can all at least try and row in the same direction and do something effective? If you’re going to make ubiquitous systems you’ve got to make something that somebody with a high school background could do. Make something that somebody that’s getting out of prison can do.
PG: What would you say the biggest failure of Metropolis Farms, if there has been any, has been so far?
JG: Everything. Our whole model is based on failing forward. We continue to try things that other people won’t try. For example, density. You’re not supposed to be able to grow plants as close as we do. They’re all supposed to die. We’ve actually had botanists come out and tell us we can’t do it. Here it is. It’s working.
How many times have you had something blow up in your face and have to deal with it? That’s what I said. Failing forward. Getting that experience. In my company failing is not a bad thing — failing and giving up is. That’s the truth of it. Just don’t quit. And that’s how we’re able to find the solutions we found.
We didn’t find them because we had super geniuses running around. We found them because if I have one characteristic that has value here it’s I’m stubborn. I’m going to get it done. I’m going to continue to focus on it until I get what I need to get done.
What it really comes down to is [you spending] those couple of years getting yuck under your fingernails, figuring out how you’re going to make it work and you screw up over and over … I learn far more from failure than I ever do from success.
Also, failure gives you a backbone. Talk to farmers who’ve got to get out every day. There is no Sunday. If anybody in the world has a work ethic it’s the farmers.
I’m going to make Philadelphia the vertical farming capital of the world. I know that’s a bold statement, but that’s what’s coming. — Jack Griffin, Metropolis Farms
PG: On the flip side, what do you consider Metropolis Farms’ biggest success?
JG: Our relationship with the city of Philadelphia. It’s remarkable. There’s two things Philadelphians never get to say: (1) The Eagles have won the Super Bowl. (2) City government is doing a good job. We had every resource laid at our feet. And that’s because we have a real symbiotic relationship with them. I didn’t go to the city government and say give me millions of dollars. We’ve never taken a single dime of government money. I funded a lot of it myself.
[I said] I’ll do the heavy lifting, but these are the doors I need you to kick in — and they kicked them in. Major food providers, the universities, the colleges. They have brought all of these people to our farm [to see what we’re doing and potentially develop a relationship].
Why are cities so willing to work with us? We’re pushing for a movement towards “green-collar” jobs. How much money did you spend for food at our local prison? It’s an awful lot of money. How many of those people you bought that [California] food from are spending money in Philadelphia?
If demand can choose where it gets its supply, it should always get it where it benefits society the most. And the benefit for us is local farmers. And not just us. They should also be focusing on the farms around us and buying as much food as possible from them.
Then you extend it year round with [Metropolis Farms]. Now if it costs the same why wouldn’t we want to create local jobs versus jobs in California? No offense to California. I love California, but jobs in California and 3,000-mile truck rides? It doesn’t make sense [now]. The economic term for it is comparative advantage. They had better sun and a comparative advantage growing outdoors. But comparative advantage can be eclipsed by technological enhancement or technological innovation, which is essentially what’s happened.
The technological innovation has moved us past the comparative advantage so we now need to, as a society, look at how we’re going to grow more and more of our food locally. I love the idea that Dickson Despommier puts out, which is we are going to have these enormous buildings and these buildings are going to themselves be farms growing on multiple floors. But what we’re doing now is how you get there. Somebody has to build this stuff in the first commercial, viable way so that we can get to the next level.
I have no illusions about what I’m doing. We’re going to be completely forgotten in the future. But there’s some kid that’s going to be able to use the infrastructure that we’re [creating] right now and do something amazing. And that kid will save the world.