The vertical farming market is projected to reach $12,77bn by 2026 - up from $2,23bn in 2018. LettUs Grow are at the forefront of these developments: “For us, it's about making our food system more sustainable, improving the carbon footprint of fresh produce, and reducing the waste associated with growing and transporting food around the world.”
BGV invested in LettUs Grow in 2017. Since then, we have championed them every step of the way, including the development of their iconic hot-pink aeroponic container farms. These are designed to make a big impact whilst being low on resources, by allowing you to grow produce with no soil, zero pesticides and 95% less water than outdoor farming. We spoke to co-founder and CEO of LettUs Grow, Charlie Guy, as part of our 10 Questions With series.
Here Charlie takes us through his personal inspirations for LettUs Grow, the qualities he finds important in a teammate, and shares some really valuable resources in the world of ag tech.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the full interview here.
We started LettUs Grow over five years ago. Back then we were trying to understand some of the issues around food production and current supply chains - lots of the big sort of thorny problems around food waste, resource intensity that goes into our food and supply chain inefficiencies. Personally, I was getting involved in food waste initiatives here in Bristol, and that's really when I first became aware of the scale of the problem, as well as the technologies that could be brought together to solve them.
What do you hope LettUs Grow will change?
For us, it's about making our food system more sustainable, improving the carbon footprint of fresh produce, and reducing the waste associated with growing and transporting food around the world. We're looking to make fundamental improvements to the food system, building on what's gone before and making the whole system more efficient and better for future generations.
Who are you hoping LettUs Grow will help?
When we started we had a big focus on consumers - to actually have a system change, you have to make things as seamless as possible for the day-to-day consumer. That’s one of the reasons we focus on the production side of things. We produce things in a more sustainable and efficient way, so that everyone can be involved in that more sustainable future.At the moment, we work much closer with farmers, growers, and other people that are getting into the food system and indoor growing. We work across the spectrum from everyone who’s involved in food, which includes every single one of us, all the way to the farmers, growers, and those leading the edge of research as well. We work with people who want to make a positive change to the food system, to develop new technologies that go beyond our current view of the world.
What makes LettUs Grow different from anything else out there?
It's a unique combination of technologies and products that can increase the productivity and profitability of growing fresh produce, whilst improving their sustainability. The technology that we've developed is quite a new way of growing plants. Everything we do is rooted in science, and it effectively enables us to grow plants up to twice as fast as the existing hydroponics technology, as well as using less water, fertiliser and zero pesticides. It's a fundamental improvement to how we can grow plants. And everything we develop is grounded in ethics to ensure that we are really taking a very holistic view of how we develop technology.
Are there any success stories you can share about your impact to date?
We’re in the stages of bringing our technology to market. So far, we've delivered over eight sites around the UK, from rural community growing projects to urban farms in the centre of cities that are providing hyperlocal fresh produce all year round. We've also got a lot of exciting work going on behind the scenes with some of our partners, including some of the biggest names in UK horticulture. Unfortunately, I can't disclose much at the moment, but there's a lot of exciting stuff going on in our research and development teams, and across the business.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in running a startup?
I came into this pretty young. LettUs Grow is my first venture, and I didn’t have many “real” jobs beforehand. I think it's worth reflecting on how absorbing the whole journey can be in terms of the impact on your life. It affects your life pretty much every single day, even if you're on holiday or down at the pub, someone will be asking you about it. If you are wanting to launch your own high growth company, it’s important to acknowledge that it will be all-consuming at times. The plus side of that is that it creates opportunities above and beyond your normal career aspirations. You have to reflect on those really exciting bits, but also acknowledge the late nights and hard graft that goes with it.
What do you think is the most important quality in a co-founder or teammate?
We have a founding team of the three: myself, Jack and Ben. I am unbelievably impressed by people that have managed to carry all of that responsibility, and the different roles you need inside of a company on their own.In terms of important qualities for the co-founders, teammates, or anyone you bring in at that early stage of a business? Number one has got to be trust. You may be going into business with someone you haven’t worked with before, but knowing that you trust that person has to be the number one consideration. This doesn’t necessarily mean having the same ambition, but understanding each other’s ambition. Then having enough empathy to know when that ambition may or may not diverge in the future, and talking about it openly.It goes without saying that honesty and openness have to be important, and they're enshrined in our values in LettUs Grow as well. Lastly, at the early-stages you have to have flexibility and an ability to pick things up that are new and give them a go, even if you've never done it before. You might not get it right, but that willingness to keep learning and not be knocked down if you didn't get something right straightaway is important because there's so many things that you're going to get wrong.
Aside from LettUs Grow, are there any other tech for good companies you admire?
This is an impossible question for me. My politicians answer is that there's too many to choose from. If you are interested in startups with a focus on sustainability, beyond the ventures BGV has invested in, there are a few groups I can’t recommend enough. First, there is the work that the postcode lottery green challenge does internationally with their green challenge competition every year. This is a great place to start to see a hit list of what different companies are doing. In the UK, there is also Tech Nation’s Net Zero cohort which is another fantastic group of companies. For a broader look, beyond sustainability, there is the escape the city team. They are always on the lookout for the best companies to work for that may or may not be in London, or other large cities, but tend to have a really good work ethic and put people at the centre of what they do.
If someone wanted to find out more about vertical farming, agriculture technology, and the work you do, where would you signpost them?
Within the UK, there's a group specifically for vertical farming called UK UAT - the UK Urban Ag Tech group. That's the place to go for companies in the UK that are working in the sector. For a more global lens, there is a group from the US called AGRITECTURE. They do a fantastic blog, which highlights a lot of the best news going on globally in urban farming. This includes a lot of vertical farming and indoor growing. For a broader outlook into agriculture and tech, AgFunder should be your first point of call. It’s a fantastic resource, and they really know what they're doing in terms of bringing the right news together and putting that out there for the world.
What’s next for you and LettUs Grow, and how can people help?
We're in a really exciting phase at the moment of the business. We’re commercialising a number of different products and also scaling up our operations in terms of the scale of our facilities and our team. If people are keen to get involved, keep an eye on our careers page. You can also help by spreading the word, and if there’s anyone you think would be interested in using our systems, whether for research or for growing their local communities, then please do get in touch.
You can keep up to date with everything LettUs Grow is doing on their website.
Being a B Corp is really important to us at Bethnal Green Ventures. Our mission is to invest in and support startups that use technology to solve important social and environmental problems. The B Corp process holds us accountable and means we maintain high standards for our actions towards all our stakeholders.
As a tech for good VC, we often get asked, 'How do you know the impact of your companies is real?' It's a more complex question than may seem at first. The nature of early-stage businesses means there’s still a great deal of uncertainty. So how do we know that our investors' capital generates real change?
At BGV, we want to ensure founders from all walks of life feel included in our community and have access to equal opportunities. For the third year in a row, we're sharing the results of our portfolio D&I data and our commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in our work.