April 8, 2022
Plenty Inc.’s new 95,000-square-foot vertical farm in Compton, California uses technology developed by Nate Storey at UW when he was a student. When it opens, it will be the highest performing indoor vertical farm in the world. (Plenty Inc. photo)
Ten years ago, Nate Storey was about to complete his Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Wyoming while working to develop a new company with the bold goal of revolutionizing the way produce is grown and sold. He and a partner had just won the UW College of Business entrepreneurship competition and received $12,500 to start their business, as well as a year of free business consulting and a place at the UW incubator.
Today, Storey is Chief Science Officer of Silicon Valley startup Plenty Inc., which acquired his company Bright Agrotech in 2017. Plenty will soon open the world’s highest-performing indoor vertical farm in Compton, California – a major step for a new industry recognized for its ability to produce year-round, high-quality produce using relatively little water and land, and without the input of pesticides is attracting increasing attention. Walmart recently announced that it has acquired a stake in Plenty, becoming the first major US retailer to invest significantly in indoor vertical farming to supply its stores with fresher produce.
It’s been an amazing decade-long journey for Storey, who still resides in Laramie with his family while traveling frequently to California for his job. He says his success shows that a good idea, early-stage support, intense effort, perseverance, and a willingness to learn and adapt enable UW graduates to achieve their wildest ambitions.
“When we entered the first $10,000 contest, we didn’t even really have a business at the time—just a concept that took some work,” says Storey. “Over the next few years, we built a company and took a crash course in how businesses work, how to set things up, how to manage employees, taxes, overheads, compliance – all the work that comes with starting a business. A lot has happened since then.”
It certainly has.
Take off from the ground
Bright Agrotech emerged from UW’s incubator in 2015 and built an indoor farm in Laramie using vertical towers and other technology that Storey had developed and patented under license with the university. The company grew rapidly, had multi-million dollar annual sales and employed several dozen people.
“I began to realize that Bright Agrotech was not able to make the impact on the food supply that we were hoping for,” says Storey. “I was thinking about this problem when I met some guys from California who said they had the same idea for a food manufacturing company and liked our technology. They said, ‘Why don’t you join us?’”
So Storey co-founded Plenty with Matt Barnard and Jack Oslan and handed Bright Agrotech over to partner Chris Michael. Then Plenty’s acquisition of Bright Agrotech brought in Storey’s patents and original equipment “to consolidate that technology.”
The Laramie operation will remain and serve as Plenty’s research and development farm, employing approximately 80 people. Michael is now Senior Internal Communications Manager at Plenty.
It took a lot more work at Laramie and at Plenty’s flagship farm in South San Francisco to take Bright Agrotech’s technology and develop it for large-scale application.
“We’ve had great success with Plenty, but we’ve had difficult technical problems to solve, and it’s also complex from a business perspective,” says Storey. “No one in the world had a vision for these things. In order to develop this vision, contact with the laws of physics, the markets and the customers was necessary.
“By and large, Bright Agrotech’s bones are still there. We started this quest to bring fresh, healthy local food to everyone. We thought we knew how to do that,” he adds. “The technologies and methods are the same, but the approaches have changed in response to things we’ve learned throughout the process. We were generally right; What has changed in the last ten years is the best way to do it.”
“A huge learning experience”
Storey describes the last 10 years as exhausting – “a decade without sleep, working 100-hour weeks, selling and pitching.”
“I had to learn a lot of things – finance, fundraising, markets and politics – things that I didn’t think about at first. It was just a huge learning experience. It’s the nature of building these kinds of things,” he says. “On this journey I was able to take a unique position. I’m not a business graduate. I’m not a Stanford graduate or a lot of things that people think you have to be to be successful in technology. It turns out you don’t have to be that smart – just have good ideas, be willing to work really hard and not sleep much.”
Plenty has raised almost $1 billion for its next steps, and the first step is monumental: the opening of the 95,000-square-foot indoor farm in Compton, which is expected to ship its first products to Walmart stores in California in October.
“This is by far the largest and most automated indoor farm in the world,” says Storey. “It contains a lot of the technology that we’ve worked really hard to develop at Plenty, a lot of the technology that represents the first steps towards creating a whole new way of farming. We are all really looking forward to it, even though we are still in a rush and chaos of construction. It represents a lot of incredible work by a lot of incredible people.”
According to Plenty, its vertical farming towers are designed to grow multiple crops on one platform in a building the size of a large retail store. Its systems feature vertical crop towers, LED lighting, and robots for planting, feeding, and harvesting crops—using 1 percent of the space an outdoor farm requires, while yielding 150 to 350 times more food per hectare. The vertical farms are intended to complement, but not replace, traditional farming practices while helping to increase food supply in a sustainable manner.
What is the company’s ultimate goal?
“Many will build many of these farms. These farms are very sophisticated assets that bring jobs to communities,” Storey says. “We will grow quite rapidly over the next few years to become a global agricultural production and technology company. As we grow, add new plants and invest in improving technology, we will also see growth in our science team in Laramie.”
Storey’s success is exactly what UW had in mind when it launched the Wyoming Technology Business Center, now IMPACT 307, says Fred Schmechel, interim director of the incubator program. The university is increasing its efforts to encourage entrepreneurship with the establishment of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership and the Wyoming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in partnership with state community colleges, the Wyoming Business Council and others. Plans are to establish IMPACT 307 incubators in communities across the state, in addition to existing ones in Laramie, Casper, Cheyenne and Sheridan.
In this photo taken in February 2012, Nate Storey examines growing lettuce in his startup’s patented vertical towers in a submerged greenhouse. Today he is Chief Science Officer of Silicon Valley startup Plenty Inc., which is soon to open the world’s highest-performing indoor vertical farm in Compton, California (UW photo).
“Nate’s story is a great example of how the university helps students and faculty create ideas and then bring them to market,” says Schmechel. “His story is particularly impressive, but a number of our incubator clients have become successful businesses in the state and beyond.”
Storey credits former UW business consultants Christine Langley and the late Jon Benson with helping him bring his patented technology to market and overcome the challenges of starting a business.
“I still tell people that Christine is the most influential person in my life from a business mentoring standpoint. I will always be in her debt – so does Jon Benson,” says Storey. “They were incredibly patient and wise. I’m super grateful.”
What advice does he have for UW students who, like him, want to make a name for themselves in places like Silicon Valley?
“When you grow up in Wyoming and you go to a place like Silicon Valley or Los Angeles, you’re faced with a series of questions to ask yourself, like ‘Who am I? Who am I in relation to the people around me?’” says Storey, who graduated from high school in Cheyenne. “It’s a challenge when you go to a place like Silicon Valley. There are many smart people who know what they are doing and have experience that you don’t have. You have to be honest about what you know and don’t know, and then be willing to learn. Still, rest assured that the education and things you learned at UW are applicable elsewhere and that you’re as smart as anyone else. I wish I had been more confident at the beginning.”
The success of Bright Agrotech and Plenty with its continued presence in Laramie demonstrates the potential for continued economic progress in Wyoming, he adds, emphasizing the need for affordable housing for the workforce.
“We are building a company that will be a world leader in this area of high technology. Not many Wyoming companies can say that,” he says. “Laramie and Wyoming are in a special place. The state will grow. It can grow chaotically, or we can embrace the growth, plan ahead, and prepare the state for its next phase of economic growth and development. If we get it right, the next decade can be even better than the last.”