Founded as a country of “gentlemen farmers”, for nearly four centuries the US economy has thrived as an agricultural society starting with the farms of the lower Delmarva with the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Fast forward to the turn of the 20th Century where more than half the population, young and old was engaged in the agricultural economy. And although today, “Ag” seems to be a long forgotten part of the our employment fabric where <2% of all Americans work in a farm-oriented job—agriculture as a sector is still a giant $2.4 Trillion industry according to the World Bank.
Thanks in large part to technology, the American Ag economy is one of our largest exporters of products, grown and produced, from tractors and other industrial equipment to chemicals and fertilizers to irrigation automation advances. But today agriculture and technology are transforming this sleepy commodity driven industry and not merely by global giants like Monsanto and Cargill, but from the labs of Silicon Valley and the algae tanks of San Diego. Big Ag as it were is not the only group growing the number of scientists with innovative technology but entrepreneurs alike funded by venture capital are looking to share in a piece of this trillion dollar (s) market and rightfully poised to disrupt it.
This Ag revolution is also attracting the attention of behemoths like Amazon whose recent acquisition of Whole Foods Markets signals a dramatic shift in thinking for some of the largest technology companies. And where disruptors like Amazon lead others will follow. Further pressures on the Ag space to create efficiencies are duly coupled with the complex issues revolving around climate change realities and the global demand for two billion more people who will inhabit this planet by mid century.
Like other growth technology sectors, investors and strategics are taking note and its not only private institutional capital such as Kholsa Ventures, GV, Monsanto Ventures and Andreessen/Horowitz, but even centuries old formidable consumer brands like Campbell Soup whose captive Acre Ventures has been identifying investments and strategic acquisitions.
Our fund and our sister fund, Impala Investment Holdings whose investment directive is supporting growth companies in the heart of the explosive growth markets of east Africa, collectively we have spent a considerable amount of time meeting with entrepreneurs and startups in the AgTech and correlated Aquatech sectors. In late 2016 I was introduced to a company based in San Diego who was bringing to market a fully upcycled fertilizer created from regionally sourced waste streams. These left over waste streams like algae bloom, beer brewing grains that yield the very necessary nutrients such as Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus, Calcium, Magnesium and Sulfur that are fundamental to high yield plant growth.
Being the son of a landscape architect and an amateur gardener myself, I knew the impacts that organic fertilizers could have for the green thumb enthusiast, but could this same formula be sourced, manufactured, and produced with a local market supply chain but with an industrial scale impact for large growing farm clients and homeowner consumers alike.
I recently sat down with Jared Criscuolo, the Founder of Upcycle & Company and the maker of Amazon’s best selling natural fertilizer, Native Soil to chat about his company and the future of recycled sustainable products.
Tell me the genesis story of your company? What was your initial motivation to leave your previous company to pursue your vision?
11 years ago I moved to California to gain work experience in order to become an environmental lawyer or prosecutor, and to pursue my enduring love of the outdoors. Surfing has been a lifelong pursuit of mine, and I got sick from polluted water after a rainstorm my first week in town. Through volunteering and engaging in environmental activism with the Surfrider Foundation while working in the investment industry I realized that I had 2 options – spend years litigating environmental issues or embrace free market capitalism. I chose the latter, and Upcycle & Co is the culmination of my professional and environmental pursuits over the past 11 years to create a business that solves environmental problems.
How did you find your way into sustainable products?
Through an interesting set to experiences. After I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government with minors in History and French from Saint Lawrence University in Upstate New York, I went into sales and worked for UBS, Morgan Stanley, and then with Solar City. But it was my journey as a co-founder of a river exploration and research NGO called Below the Surface, and my work with the Surfrider Foundation that peeked my interest in the environment.
Leading a company requires the ability to effectively communicate your vision, strategy and future of the company—how do you effectively convey this?
We make elegant & meaningful products out of waste. We’re locally sourced, manufactured, and sold. We don’t buy into misleading campaigns like “Certified Organic”, or other fads. We do what is right because we believe it's the right thing to do. We treat our employees with respect and they are all owners of this company. The harder we all work the more we all succeed. We are the keystone in sustainability and it’s our job to make the earth and people living in it a little bit healthier, and a little bit more natural.
What motivates you to build a company with these values?
Often I tell people its not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. This sums up my attitude about life in general. If a person truly cares and is committed to doing something then success never a variable. I also have a few quotes I fall back on: an English teacher of mine in high school was fond of saying, “perfection is always expected but rarely achieved”. A sales manager of mine used to tell our training class “you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them in proportion”.
Share with us some your most critical experiences starting out, raising capital and recruiting for your venture?
Fortunately I had a vision in that based on a visceral reaction I had to being restricted in doing something I loved. That is my intrinsic motivation and the jump off point for what we’re doing. Through the community organizing and activism I got involved with, I ended up starting a consulting business through which I was introduced to the practice and processes of beneficial reuse of organic waste. I had over 3 years of time to learn about that product, test it and iterate themes that would later educate our brand, product and content marketing. My team at my consulting business and I developed a community garden space at a wastewater agency where we got to do hands on research, social media promotion, advertising, community events, and research that helped to orient my thinking and approach. It was completely inadvertent and unplanned, which made it even more right and purposeful. Many of the lessons learned from this garden and client relationship served as a kind of creative brief and academy that helped orient my thinking and creativity on product creation, branding, and messaging. Consider it the essence of the phrase “playing in traffic”.
How did you incubate the idea of “Native Soil”?
Working in EvoNexus as an entrepreneur in residence was critical as well. It happened at the same time as all of the above, and it put me in touch with a broad cross section of talent from the software and tech space. This exposure taught me how to take a hard look at a business and what business models and attributes of a company are exciting to investors and are real and defensible measures of growth.
Your brand and packaging are incredible, tell me a bit more about this creative process?
We focus heavily on brand and constantly push each other to adhere strictly to brand guidelines and our brand manifesto. This is directly the result of a passionate artist and designer colleague who relentlessly challenged me to lead with beautiful design and creative talent. For years she constantly shared with me how critically important good design is, how to go about researching and writing a creative brief, and how to understand and communicate effectively with artists. It was that encouragement and her experiences professionally that educated our unwavering emphasis on our brand.
What are some of the technology advances and changes you envision in the next 5,10 and 20 years in your space?
A shift towards (or at least experimentation with) hydroponics and vertical farming. It's a massive change from the way things have been done that will make vegetables and fruit more affordable and available year round. I cant say for certain that it will make traditional mono cropping and large farms obsolete, nor will it happen overnight (more on the 25-50 year horizon) but it will certainly put downward pricing pressure on existing land based operations when indoor grow facilities may be able to grow more efficiently and produce the food that communities need much closer to the end consumer without the seasonality associated with traditional farming. Ultimately this is localization of agriculture, and the positive outcomes of it are why I’m focused on localization of raw materials/nutrient inputs.
The big factors that will drive localization and more closed loop systems like hydroponic farming include y/y and long term increases in transportation costs, water scarcity and increased intensity of droughts, the politicization of water and increasing inter-state drain on & competition for water resources, decline of global stocks of raw materials, pollution associated with globalized agriculture, global forest degradation associated with big “Ag”, and the constant decrease in the availability of micro-nutrients in the soil of farms throughout the world.
How does geographic and logistical constraints impact your strategy?
A lasting and increasing push for localization of growing food and reuse of local waste resources. This is driven in part by consumer ethos and demand, but its also an economic reality we are wrestling with – its simply getting too complicated and expensive to move the requisite raw materials needed for farming around the globe at a price farmers can afford and be profitable. The value of land in many regions is getting so great that in many cases it makes more sense for farmers to sell their land to developers, or to investment groups and lease back the space for Ag use. Further, in California over 30% of the electricity consumed statewide is used to move water over the 725+ mile distance from Mount Shasta to San Diego. Of that, 80% of the water consumed in the state is used for agriculture. Ag is critical but has a variety of increasing cost and environmental variables in its current form.
Over 25% of the earths land is used for agriculture – much of which includes clear-cut rainforest and areas of land otherwise critical to helping manage the heat of the sun at a global level. In order to feed the growing population of the earth by 2050, we’ll need to cultivate 35% of the earth. Further, organic farming requires up to 4x more land and up to 20x more fungicides and fertilizer than traditional farming, plus flood irrigation, runoff from rains, and many fertilizer application techniques are inextricably tied to massive amounts of runoff and creation of hypoxic zones throughout the coastlines of the world. There is staggering inefficiency in sourcing and manufacturing of many chemical/industrial grade fertilizers due to the global sourcing and mining footprint. Local -> regional sourcing, manufacturing and sales can mitigate all of these factors. The solution is truly right in our backyards.
That said, these kind of changes may upend and bankrupt many traditional farmers and their way of living so there is going to be significant pushback from established farmers, their organizations, and the federal government with potential for dislocation of many more people in rural parts of the country.
What are the characteristics you look for in talent that you recruit into your company?
Entrepreneurs. I like people who are creative and curious, who have taken and continue to take risks in life. Through toil and trial one learns a great deal about themselves, and they also understand that nothing is permanent and therefore nothing should be taken for granted. I like people with a sense of humor who are willing to poke fun at themselves when they goof up. I like people who encourage someone when they make a mistake. Mistakes beget innovation, even if its small jumps. I particularly like someone who’s fallen on their face a few times and can laugh about it but most importantly learn from it. I like people who are smarter than me but are humble enough to keep asking questions and never suppose they are an expert. Finally, I like people who selflessly put their faith in something – be it an idea, family religion, concept, etc.
What are your most rewarding moments as a founder?
This sounds cheesy, but every waking minute. I’m excited all day long, I get to work with very creative and visionary people, and I get to solve a major environmental and business problem
What causes you the most stress and how do you manage these episodes?
Inefficient use of time. I go to a small gym with people I like. Whenever I get distracted/stressed out/foggy eyed I go for an hour or two and the experience and intense work completely shuts my mind off. I always come through our workouts exhausted but mentally clear and renewed. Its like a hard reset on a slow computer.
What big things are in store next for you and the company?
We are working on 2 new upcycled gardening products and laying out plans to open into 4 new markets. These regions taken in sum will get us close to $150mm valuation. We’re getting ready to open a new round that will provide the resources to get there.
About Impala Ventures
Impala Ventures is a boutique Venture Capital & Advisory firm focused on early stage and growth companies in PropTech Tech (real estate tech) and CleanTech and Energy/Sustainability sectors. Impala Ventures seeks investment opportunities with growth companies that disrupt their industries and bring positive environmental impacts and financial returns. We have active investments in IoT, Artificial Intelligence (Ai), Aquatech, Cleantech and Sustainability Automation and Enterprise SaaS companies throughout the US, Europe and Africa.
Brian Snow is a general partner in Impala Ventures, he works closely with companies as an advisor and investor primarily working with Cleantech, Sustainability and Real Estate Technology companies, guiding them through strategic growth decisions, capital formation and M&A.