Accelerators / Entrepreneurs / Environment / Food and drink

Bed-Stuy’s buzzy new accelerator is all about the ‘real food’ revolution

Square Roots has already gotten 500 applications for just 10 spots. We talked to CEO Tobias Peggs about what impact he envisions his program will have.

One of Square Roots' vertical hydroponic farms. (Photo courtesy of Square Roots)

Just over a month ago, we learned that Bed-Stuy is getting an urban farming accelerator. The program, called Square Roots, drew lots of press — in large part because of its cofounder, Kimbal Musk, the younger brother of Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. But we’re interested in how Square Roots will contribute to Brooklyn’s burgeoning urban farming scene and whether it can make a still-niche activity go mainstream.
That’s yet to be determined: the program doesn’t launch until next month, and Square Roots’ team is just settling into Bed-Stuy (in temporary digs for now). Once it kicks off, it will launch a farmers market as well as other community programs, CEO and cofounder Tobias Peggs told Technical.ly. Square Roots does not take equity in its participants’ companies, though it may invest in them at a later date, Peggs told Technical.ly.
One thing’s for sure: there’s been keen interest in the program. It’s received 500 applications for just 10 slots. Many of the applicants, Peggs said, aren’t agricultural specialists, but rather people interested in making fresh, healthy food more accessible — picking up the mantle of “real food” evangelists such as Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver.
Peggs himself might be counted in that category. Though he was raised in rural southwestern England, in Devon and Cornwall, he’s spent most of his career in big cities — London, Mumbai and New York — focusing on media and tech. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, and his resume includes stints as CEO of social ad retargeting company OneRiot and photo editing company Aviary.
So how did Peggs move from ad tech to ag-tech? We caught up with him via email to learn more about the impetus for Square Roots and the impact he hopes it will have. Here’s what he had to say.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs.

Square Roots CEO Tobias Peggs. (Courtesy photo)

How did you become interested in urban farming?
When I joined OneRiot in 2006, Kimbal Musk was the CEO. He has a long history of success in tech, as well as real food. I joined OneRiot because of the innovative big data challenges it was tackling, but also to work for Kimbal. Then he had a skiing accident and broke his neck. He spent months recovering, and during that rehab, a realization struck that life could be very short indeed. So he decided then and there to spend every waking second focused on impact. He launched himself full time into The Kitchen, which is an impact organization with the mission of “real food for everyone.”
At that point, I took over as CEO of OneRiot, and after a couple of years we were acquired by Walmart. I’d always been a careful eater — I’m a competitive triathlete, so I tend to look after myself — but while at Walmart, looking at data on what produce was being consumed in what markets, I got a real education about global consumers, what they eat and who grows it.
Sometime later, I was running another tech company in NYC called Aviary. That got acquired by Adobe in September 2014. But I couldn’t shake this food thing from my mind, so I went back to work for Kimbal at The Kitchen to get a real food education.
How did the idea for Square Roots come about?
The Kitchen carries out its mission today through a combination of restaurants and learning gardens. With a commitment to local food sourcing, the restaurants, including the Next Door brand, have become major catalysts for local food economies  in places like Colorado, Chicago and Memphis. They now serve affordable real food to over 1 million guests a year. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Kitchen Community has built 300 learning gardens across the country, inspiring 150,000 kids each day to get outdoors and learn about real food.
The business opportunity it sees is that people want real food.

The Kitchen is a good example of conscious capitalism: doing well by doing good. The business opportunity it sees is that people want real food. Organic food is now a $40 billion industry growing 11 percent year over year, and the biggest buyers are millennials. Millennials are twice as likely as boomers to buy local food. There’s no doubt that people, especially millennials, have lost all trust in the industrial food system, and they want local, real food.
That demand is only getting bigger. By 2050, nine billion people will live on our planet, and 70 percent of them will live in cities. These people need food, and the data is clear: they will want local, real food. The industrial food system, shipping in high-calorie, low-nutrient food from thousands of miles away, will not solve that problem. Instead, finding the right solution presents an extraordinary opportunity for new entrepreneurs in urban agriculture, growing and selling local real food. The way Kimbal and I see it, “Real food is the new internet.”
So that led us to set up Square Roots. Square Roots is an urban farming accelerator  empowering thousands of millennials to join this real food revolution. Our goal is to enable a whole new generation of real food entrepreneurs who are ready to build thriving, responsible businesses that, like The Kitchen, will bring real food to everyone.

Why did you choose the specific technologies you’re working with?
What we’re doing initially is creating campuses of indoor, climate-controlled hydroponic vertical farms that grow leafy greens and herbs. For our first phase, which opens in Brooklyn in November, our farms are built inside shipping containers. These essentially enable three-dimensional growing, giving farmers the annual yield equivalent of two acres of outdoor farmland inside a climate-controlled module with a footprint of barely 320 square feet. These systems also use 80 percent less water than outdoor farms. That’s the potential for a lot of real food grown in a very small space using very few resources.
The controlled climate also means they can grow fresh, tasty food all year round, even when there’s two feet of snow on the ground outside. They can be installed practically anywhere — i.e., right in the heart of the city, next to the people who want to eat the food — with the aim of removing the impact of transport inherent in the industrial food system almost entirely. And they are also a proven technology, with a very supportive community of successful growers who are already using similar systems and are willing to help each other.
What types of founders are you looking for, and what do you hope they’ll bring to the program?
We’re looking for entrepreneurial-minded individuals who want to play their part in the real food revolution. You don’t need specific skills, you just need a strong desire to grow real food and build a real business. These are people who are likely just starting their entrepreneurial journey. They will get hands on experience running a vertical farming business with us, but we’re here to help them become future leaders in food, wherever that journey leads.
Since we made our launch announcement last month, we’ve had over 500 applications from motivated millennials who want to join our season 1 program, which only has ten slots. The energy and ideas this community brings is incredible. I’m so excited to start working alongside them.
The site mentions that a few participants have already been chosen. Can you tell us a little bit about them? What will they be working on?
There are ten founding entrepreneurs in the inaugural season and they will have 24/7 access to the campus. The idea of the campus came from watching magic happen at tech accelerators like Techstars, where I’ve been a long time mentor for the NYC program. The aim with the campus is to create an environment where entrepreneurial electricity can flow. The entrepreneurs will learn specific skills from our network of coaches and mentors, such as the ins and outs of hydroponic farming and how to sell at a farmers market, but they will also be encouraged to innovate and collaborate on new ideas together.
Our goal is to empower young people to become real food entrepreneurs, so selling the food they grow is a big part of that. We will encourage them to build direct relationships with customers and sell food locally: to families at farmers markets, to chefs at restaurants and more. A big part of the mission is to help reconnect people to their food and the people who grow it. That means Square Roots entrepreneurs getting out there and becoming an integral part of the local food system.
Meanwhile, the campus will also house its own farmers market, and we’ll be hosting a multitude of events for the wider community. We hope to create opportunities for everyone to dig into local food all year round.
There’s been some criticism of urban farming as an impractical solution to issues of food supply and a potentially wasteful, energy-intensive process. What do you say to those critiques?
At the end of the day, people want local, real food. And they also want to live in the city. So we have to figure out how to grow food in the city. I think it takes a broad church to feed the world responsibly with real food. So the more of us working towards the real food revolution, the better. To those with critiques, I’d say: come to our farm, talk with our entrepreneurs, let’s learn together, let’s figure this out together. If we’re all at least trying, we’ll get there. If we’re just arguing and pontificating, I’m not sure much will happen.
What do you hope Square Roots’ impact will be in the next five to ten years?
Ten years from now, I hope we’ve helped thousands of young people become real food entrepreneurs and made some significant strides in getting real food for everyone. While we certainly have a lot to prove in the initial phases of Square Roots, the desire and the ambition is to scale fast and take this from Brooklyn to L.A. and all stops in between.
How do you see yourself applying your past experience in artificial intelligence and mobile tech in your work with Square Roots, or do you see that as a closed chapter for now?
Longer term, I think big data and AI will become important to Square Roots, as our network of modular farms and farmers harvest not just food but also millions of signals, or data points, that we can analyze to help us all understand how to grow more local, real food. [Note: Another Brooklyn-grown startup is working on this exact topic.] Ultimately, it all comes down to having great-tasting real food, grown locally and affordably. If data science can help with that and support the work of fabulous farmers and real food entrepreneurs, then bring it on.

Series: Brooklyn

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