Big moves

Big moves

Features - Cover Story

With a new CEO and a new retail partnership, indoor grower Plenty aims for significant growth.

March 16, 2022

Photos courtesy of Plenty

The company appointed a new CEO — venture capitalist and agritech entrepreneur Arama Kukutai — to succeed co-founder Matt Barnard. Barnard is still with the company as its executive chairman of the board, but Kukutai is at the head of the table as Plenty heads into its next phase.

Elsewhere, Plenty announced perhaps its biggest deal to date. In January, the company announced a $400 million funding round that included a massive investment from Walmart. The exact figure that Walmart — one of the largest retailers in North America — invested in Plenty is unknown. But it was enough for Walmart to secure a seat on the Plenty board.

Additionally, Plenty’s greens will now be sold in select Walmart stores on the West Coast. Later this year, the company will officially open its first commercial scale farm in Compton. From there, product from the farm will then reach nearby Los Angeles-area Walmart shelves.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have our first commercial, full-scale facility online,” says Dana Worth, Plenty’s senior vice president of commercial. “It’s the only one on the West Coast primarily producing leafy greens. For us as a company, it’s an opportunity to put the product of our labor into customers’ hands.”

New, but familiar, leadership

Plenty's Compton farm (pictured here) is set to open this year and will be the company's first full-scale farm.

Kukutai, the new CEO, has been involved with Plenty since 2016 as a board member and key adviser. He was also an early investor.

“He’s been with the company in many ways for many years,” says Worth. “He’s been with our board since almost the beginning and has been helping guide the company for some time now.” According to Worth, Kukutai’s background is specifically in agtech, as well as previous work as an agronomist on the West Coast. A native of New Zealand, Kukutai officially took over as CEO in mid-January 2022.

“He’s a big proponent of our success,” Worth says.

“I am delighted that Arama has agreed to lend his formidable experience to the role of CEO, and I look forward to supporting him as Plenty accelerates its growth,” adds Barnard.

According to Worth, it also helps that the new CEO is someone who already understands what Plenty is about and where it might be headed. Kukutai had been working hand-in-hand with Barnard, the former CEO, for several years before taking over the role.

“He’s new on paper, but in many ways was already involved with the company,” Worth says. “It’s been great to have his expertise, both with his background in agronomy and his understanding of the tech, as well as his real focus on the business side of things.” Worth describes the new CEO as a “steady hand on the wheel” helping to guide Plenty through what he calls the “hyper growth” phase it is going through right now.

Currently, Plenty primarily produces leafy greens, but it's doing R&D to develop several other crops for its system.

That “hyper growth,” Worth says, is part of the company currently being in an interesting phase of its development. He notes that Plenty’s approach from the beginning has been to develop the architecture behind the growing system, and with now the time to turn it into “reality, turn it into farms that help us grow all of the different things we want to grow.”

“We are opening the Compton facility later this year,” Worth continues, saying that Plenty believes it will be the biggest vertical farm in the world as determined by raw output. “And we have the Walmart deal. Both of these [projects] are signs of taking the technology investments that we’ve made and turning them into commercial reality.”

As Worth notes, the Compton farm is the company’s first full-scale farm with product grown and sold to the general public. The company has plans to build more in the future — both domestically and abroad — but has already spent the last decade or so fine-tuning its technology and proving the concept both at its Laramie, Wyoming, research facility and at its current home base in San Francisco.

So, while the Compton farm is the first of what Worth and others hope is more to come, it’s also something they’ve already proven can work.

“It has taken Plenty a decade of work to solve the technology and operating challenges in order to build economically viable, scalable farms that can deliver clean, nutritious and delicious food here in America, and globally in years to come,” Kukatai said when he was announced as the new CEO. “With our Compton Farm opening this year, Plenty will lay a huge marker in proving the viability of a new wave in food quality, security and sustainability. I’m excited to be leading Plenty’s evolution from R&D to growing the business at scale.”

The key to Plenty's technology is in its adaptability to grow various crops.

The Walmart effect

According to Worth, Walmart had been looking for a partner in the broader CEA space for “quite some time.” As one of the country’s biggest retailers — and specifically one of the biggest produce retailers around — Worth says Walmart had a vested interest in finding someone who could fit their needs.

“We were fortunate that we already have a substantial R&D facility in Wyoming, as well as the R&D and prototype farm in south San Francisco,” Worth says. “This isn’t hypothetical. We are doing this with the technology that we have. Certainly, we are making the technology better all the time, but part of our advantage here is being able to show that this isn’t just an on-paper plan. This is something that we are doing today. The Compton farm being ready to open and being the largest in the world means that we’ve put real results behind what we’ve been doing.”

Worth, who joined Plenty in January 2021 after six years working at Impossible Foods, says he’s noticed a difference even in that time in retailers understanding the broader indoor agriculture industry and believing in its potential.

“Everyone is interested in the space. Everyone wants to have a conversation about it,” he says. “There are challenges for these companies with food shortages coming from field producers. Us and others in the industry are showing our capabilities. We can grow more products in more places, and I think that’s really exciting. We are starting to see some of the promise here born out.”

“These companies are prioritizing fresh,” Worth continues. “This can help them get there.”

Plenty's current facilities in Laramie, Wyoming, and San Francisco are where the company's technology has been developed and fine-tuned over the last several years.

The next growth steps

In terms of new products and varieties, Plenty has already publicly announced its entry into the strawberry market via a partnership with Driscoll’s. The Driscoll’s partnership, announced in October 2020, aims to take Plenty’s technology and pair it with Driscoll’s genetics and market knowledge, to grow berries indoors.

“We, obviously, have substantial interest in the berry space,” Worth says. “We also have been working on tomatoes as well.”

Worth says that a key part of Plenty’s model is that its growing infrastructure doesn’t need to be redeveloped or designed to grow different crops. Crops need to be tested in the system to find the right inputs and outputs, but leafy greens, strawberries and tomatoes can all be grown in the same basic infrastructure.

“That’s exciting for us because it paints the picture of a future where we can have modular, deployable indoor farms that deploy multiple kinds of crops,” Worth says. “And we believe that’s truly the way to scale.”

As far as scaling goes, Worth says Plenty hasn’t identified specific markets it wants to build its next farms in just yet. While noting that the company would like to build both domestically and overseas, Worth says the company has a desire to “play big.” He says Plenty believes the farms can be placed anywhere — “we need the water hooked up and the power hooked up,” he says. From there, it’s about finding the right locations that allow for the farm to be built, but also what local and regional retail partners value. That means being close to distribution centers, filling in supply gaps, meeting consumer demand and more.

“We have a desire to solve the challenges in food systems that we all know exist,” he says. “We’re not going to solve those problems with one farm in California. We really think about this in terms of where we are going, what are the things we want to fix in the food system while understanding our ability to deal with them at scale.”