Investing in technology's potential

Features - Cover Story

Pittsburgh-based vertical farm Fifth Season is betting on the power of technology to grow cleaner food and create new jobs.

March 20, 2020

Austin Webb, the CEA of Fifth Season and one of the company's three founders
Photo by Michael Ray

When Austin Webb enrolled in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 2016 to pursue his M.B.A., he knew that artificial intelligence and robotics would be a part of whatever business he ended up in. At the time, he says, the “entrepreneurial fever” had hit him completely.

“I went to Carnegie Mellon specifically to try and start a company because I believe AI and robotics can help change the world,” he says. “In month one there, I met this tall, lanky guy named Austin, who said, 'Hey, do you know much about vertical farming?' and I said, 'Hey, my name's Austin too and yes, I do know a little bit.' What we [eventually] found was this industry-wide struggle to make the economics work.”

That Austin is Austin Lawrence, who previously worked on another ag-tech start-up and now has a master’s degree in robotics from Northwestern University. Lawrence, along with Webb and his brother, engineer Brac Webb, co-founded the business in 2016 under the name RoBotany. The tech was first tested in two locations on Pittsburgh’s south side, where greens were grown and sold by retailers such as Giant Eagle and Whole Foods, as well as local restaurants. Ahead of the launch of a 60,000-square-foot vertical farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the company rebranded to Fifth Season, although it retains the tagline “powered by RoBotany.”

According to Webb, the main thrust of the business is two-fold. First, it aims to bring cleaner, more sustainably grown food to the Pittsburgh area before building farms in other locales. Secondly, the company wants to use technology not only to grow leafy greens, microgreens and herbs, but to create a new agriculture job that’s fueled by the same technology powering the farm.

“We really wanted to jump in and make vertical farming, which we think can be this wonderful solution to solve food waste and food health and food access, and to take that solution and make it an economic reality today as opposed to just a pipe dream for the future,” he says.

How Fifth Season grows

To dive deep into the field, Austin and the other co-founders first considered comparing the idea of vertical farming and how it currently works vs. how it would work. The two trial locations were, in that sense, a proof of concept not just to potential investors, but also for the business’ concept itself.

According to Webb, Fifth Season’s system is mostly built out of proprietary technology that combines AI and robotics with engineering. The facilities feature 30-foot tall towers, LED lighting, data-collecting sensors that gather information from plants throughout the growing process and various automated features that limit human contact with the plants. The farm still employs laborers, but Webb says the majority of their current employees are engineers — for a specific reason.

“Engineers are working on everything from hardware, software, firmware in embedded systems so that the system is able to tell the but hardware what it’s doing,” he says. “It’s all connected end to end. And they are working with our food safety specialist, our operations specialists and our plant management because our operations are integrated with our technology.” Webb adds that the amount of connectivity is what allows the farm to maintain the standards of food quality and safety that the founders want. An estimated 60 workers will be employed.

According to grow lead Danielle Ferreira, the key to growing at Fifth Season is the “recipes” for leafy greens and herbs that have been developed to provide the exact input each plant needs. Additionally, none of the crops are grown with pesticides.

“It’s a massive step up. You have a recipe and your inputs are always the same because you are controlling it 100%,” says Ferreira, who previously worked at Nature Fresh Farms, Metrolina Greenhouses and Green Circle Growers. “If you have 100% of the control, you have consistency [in the crops].”

“On a day-to-day basis, with any changes we make, it’s a continuing improvement,” she says. “Everything is being considered.”

The data collected by Fifth Season makes growing easier, too, she says, when compared to a more traditional controlled environment.

“We have an awesome R&D team developing those recipes for those farms; [they] are being tested in the farm and validated,” she says. “Even small differences — say, a slight change in the intensity of lighting — can make a huge difference. Knowing the details of what works best, you can see the results in the quality of the crops.”

As for picking Braddock as the facilities location, Webb says one benefit is that their farm doesn’t take up too much space compared to an outdoor farm or other businesses. By their estimates, the 60,000 square-foot farm produces the equivalent of 2.5 acres of outdoor growing space.

The second location is where Fifth Season leadership identified Braddock and the broader Pittsburgh area needed more locally grown produce. Braddock particularly needs a jolt. According to City Lab, 30.3% of the city’s residents currently live below the poverty line and the area has struggled to find an economic identity as the steel industry declined.

According to Webb, the design of the Braddock farm is replicable and will allow the company to build new facilities in other cities.
“The technology is what creates this level of freshness. It’s what allows us to change the distribution. Technology is the enabler.” - Austin Webb

“A big part of how he selected Braddock is looking at the food distribution system and acknowledging that it’s broken — that people are disconnected from its food,” Webb says. “So, we can go into a city like Braddock, which is a food desert, and it’s a great spot to start the decentralization and transform that harvest so that within a few hours, it’s in your hand, your salad or on your shelf.” He notes that Braddock has a history of innovation but has lost all but one of the steel mills that defined it for so long.

“We want to be part of the new era of innovation,” he says.

Emphasizing technology

Webb says that Brac, his older brother and co-founder, started tinkering with computers and programming since he was a teenager.

“We’ve always been connected to technology,” he says. “And a lot of [Brac’s] older work is around satellites and the 'internet of things.' That’s where software and hardware really come together and you’re moving hard assets.” He says that seeing how his brother's brain power could be used to utilize that technology was what put AI and robotics onto his radar.

According to Webb, the three years between the company’s founding and the Braddock facility’s launch were spent largely developing the technology and learning more about what worked and what didn’t on other farms. He says that several prototypes were built — some of which influenced the system that’s currently in place now — and that others at least provided value in helping Fifth Season do R&D across the board. For instance, some early prototypes were used to test what crops might work in the system, as company leadership didn’t want to limit the potential product line to just one or two items.

“We want to be able to provide many more products than that, giving people options based on their lifestyle,” Webb says. The next step was using prototypes to grow product and get consumer feedback well before the actual farm opened. One lesson they learned was that emphasizing the local aspect of production — Webb says 70% of consumers will pick local over 18% preferring organic — when presented with either option.

Data is an essential part of the business too; Webb says that they are taking “tons of data points every minute.” Every tray in the system, he says, has a unique ID number so it can be located at any time and traced throughout the growing process and when it gets to the package.

Austin (left) and Brac Webb
Photo by Michael Ray

“That allows us to make improvements in quantity and yield,” Webb says. “That level of traceability allows us to create the peace of mind that consumers are wanting, especially right now where lettuce is the highest cause of food-borne illness and we have all of these food safety recalls.”

He notes that data always works hand-in-hand with the company’s use of AI: The amount of data collected would be a massive task for a team of workers to break down, but something that a computer can do much more efficiently.

“It creates these feedback loops in our closed-off system that allows us to get feedback and connect data by connecting dots,” Webb says.

Continuing the build

The future of Fifth Season, he says, is expanding outside of Braddock. Like other operations — such as Revol Greens, Bowery Farming and Little Leaf Farms — Fifth Season’s growth plan involves building new locations in different cities. According to Webb, emphasizing technology on the farm makes taking it elsewhere — be it the U.S. South, the Pacific Northwest or abroad — more feasible than if the business was centered around a single crop.

“The technology is what creates this level of freshness,” he says. “It’s what allows us to change the distribution. Technology is the enabler.”

That includes reaching retail and food-service partners too — particularly amid a string of E. coli outbreaks stemming from field-grown lettuce. The traceability, Webb says, creates a sense of comfort and transparency for the end consumer.

“I don’t imagine [doing this without data] because anyone who isn’t doing something different — maybe just building some greenhouses — you’re not really innovating to move the dial when it comes to quality, hyper-locality, food safety or price and affordability,” he says. “We definitely view it as this technology creating this whole new open door, whether you’re thinking about it as a business owner or end consumer.”

“We can go into a city like Braddock, which is a food desert, and it’s a great spot to start the decentralization and transform that harvest so that within a few hours, it’s in your hand, your salad or on your shelf.” - Austin Webb

Moving forward, the plan is to go somewhere new; locations are to be determined. According to Ferreira, the recipes used at the Braddock facility should be the same at any new facility, with minor tweaks once the farm is built and data is collected in that new environment.

Expansion will require the Braddock farm to work, and will also likely demand more capital. At its inception, Fifth Season was incubated through Carnegie Mellon; they’ve since raised $35 million with assistance from Columbus-based venture capital firm Drive Capital. Webb says the goal isn’t to raise as much money as possible. (In comparison, California-based farming company Plenty raised $200 million in its last round of funding, while New Jersey-based operation Aero Farms raised $100 million last summer.)

“The thing that’s really nice about our approach — which I’d describe as a disciplined walk-the-walk — is an ability to do more in less time and with less capital,” he says. “We haven’t had to go out and do this huge mega raise that puts us and our employees in a bad spot." He says the technology, instead of being a way to seek out investment, is a way to not have to.

Still, Webb doesn’t define Fifth Season as solely a technology company or even just a grower. Instead, he uses the term “consumer-experience company.” By investing in Braddock and ideally other communities, Webb hopes the company can play a part in democratizing food and creating change.

“It’s taking something that was viewed as a commodity and making it part of their lifestyle,” he says. “That’s the most fun part.”