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One goal of high-tech indoor farming startup Bowery Farming is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance its crop yields and reduce costs. So the five-year-old Manhattan-based company has hired Google and Samsung veteran Injong Rhee as its new chief technology officer.
Rhee, who was previously Internet of Things VP at Google and chief technologist at Samsung Mobile, will focus on improving Bowery’s computer-vision system and other sensors that analyze when plants need water and nutrients, while also looking to apply the company’s accumulated historical data to new problems.
“Agriculture is sitting at the crux of the world’s most challenging problems like food shortages, climate change, water shortages, a lack of arable space,” Rhee tells Fortune about his decision to join the startup. “These are very challenging problems, and all of these are relevant to what Bowery tackles every day. Any advances we make here lead to a better world.”
There’s also the matter of the kale, Rhee adds.
Bowery so far has focused on growing and selling green leafy vegetables like lettuce, arugula, and kale, though it aims to add other categories of produce soon. “It was an eye-popping experience,” Rhee says of his first time trying Bowery’s kale. “How can it be so sweet and so crunchy. That was amazing.”
The hire comes after a year of accelerated growth at Bowery, with retail sales at outlets like Whole Foods rising 600% and e-commerce sales via Amazon and others increasing fourfold, the company says, while declining to disclose its actual sales or production figures. With two large warehouse-size farms in operation, in New Jersey and Maryland, Bowery is on the verge of opening its third indoor growing center in Bethlehem, Pa. The startup claims its high-tech methods, though more expensive than growing outdoors, create farms that are more than 100 times as productive per square foot as traditional outdoor farms.
“COVID was an accelerator of trends,” Bowery CEO and founder Irving Fain says. The pandemic disrupted food supply chains stretching across the globe, giving an advantage to Bowery, which sells its produce within just a few hundred miles of each farm, he says. “That amplified and accelerated a trend towards simplifying supply chains, and creating a surety of supply.”
But Bowery also faces a host of competitors, from other indoor farming startups like AeroFarms and Gotham Greens, to more traditional ag companies like John Deere and Bayer’s Monsanto, all fueling a movement toward precision farming. If one-quarter of farms worldwide adopted precision agriculture using A.I. and other data crunching methods by 2030, farmers’ annual expenses would decline by $100 billion, or as much as 4% of the sector’s total expenses, while saving water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study by McKinsey found.
Rhee spent 15 years as a professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, where he helped develop core Internet standards for transporting data at high speeds. He joined Samsung in 2011 where he helped lead a wide range of projects including the Bixby digital assistant, Knox security app, and Samsung Pay mobile payments service. He moved to Google in 2018 as an entrepreneur-in-residence to focus on Internet of Things projects.
Bowery has raised over $170 million in venture capital from a mix of tech figures like Amazon consumer CEO Jeff Wilke and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, well-known restaurateurs such as Tom Colicchio and David Barber, and venture capital firms including Temasek, GV, and General Catalyst.