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Meet IUNU, a new way to grow food indoors

The Vator Splash winner is an indoor light that cuts down on the cost and energy of growing fod

Entrepreneur interview by Steven Loeb
October 24, 2014
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/39c2

It's not something that Americans - trained to consume whatever they want, whenever they want - think about.

But there is an increasingly significant problem with access to fresh, healthy food in this country, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Forget having the ability to buy organic stuff, which can be 20% to double the price, simply having access to fruits and vegetables might mean traveling a long way for a large number of people.

Yet there is a widespread assumption that oganic or just plain home-grown food (sans preservatives) is the way to go to lead healthier lives. So how can we shave off the cost of growing food so more people can grow it themselves or have access to it?

Possibly through IUNU, the winner of Vator Splash LA earlier this month. It is a new kind of light that is helping to make indoor farming cheaper and more prevalent than ever before. 

IUNU is on the cusp of some pretty big trends, More people and corporations are growing their own food, in order to be more  "organic" and to avoid preservatives. To wit, The Honest Company, whose founders Brian Lee and Jessica Alba spoke at Splash, grow their own lettuce.

Agriculture technology, or AgTech, has also been growing quickly. In 2012, the space only raised $103 million in 41 venture capital deals. This year, thought, there was already $401 million invested in over 35 companies by July, according to AgFunderNews. 

IUNU is seizing on these trends, creating a brand new type of technology that it believes will take this growing space and make it uniquitous. 

"No one has come up with economically viable way to grow fruits and vegetables indoors. The number one cost of farming is operational expenses, which we cut by 60% to 70%," Adam Greenberg, the founder and CEO of IUNU, told me in an interview . "Most people are surprised that this technology is more energy efficient than LED." 

(Image: Executives from CBRE, KPMG, Vator's founder Bambi Francisco, Adam Greenberg, Console OS founder and CEO Christopher Price, and executives from Stratpoint, Wilson Sonsini and Adsemble. Collectively the sponsors presented IUNU with $40k in in-kind prizes.)

In our talk, Greenberg and I spoke about how the company is changing the AgTech space, where the idea for the company came from and how he wants to help the world. 

What is IUNU?

Seattle-based IUNU, which is pronounced “you-new," is an indoor light for growing plants that cuts down on the cost by reducing the heat and electricity necessary to grow food without natural light.

Compared to current commercial lighting systems, IUNU's proprietary Dual Plasma fixture produces 70% less heat, consumes 50% less energy, reduces water consumption, and grows superior produce. Conventional practices, Greenberg said, are simply not suitable for growing.

There are two problems that IUNU is currently trying to solve. The first is the cost of shipping food. Right now, 50% of the cost of food is transportation and nearly 50% of food grown is spoils before it ever reaches a store. The second problem is a lack of land, which Greenberg calls the "number one commodity." 

Simply simply giving businesses and consumers the ability to grow their food themselves, without the need to have large amounts of land, or to pay the high cost of transporting the food can solve both of these problems. In turn, this can help feed more people.

Of course, beyond ending world hunger, another obvious use for IUNU, and one that a few panelists joked about at Splash, is cannabis. I asked Greenberg if weed, which is now becoming legal in states like Washington and Colorado, could become a serious source of revenue for the company and if they have any plans for that market.

"We believe that our light will naturally corner the market, and we are not marketing to any specific industry," Greenberg said. "We want to do everything by the books and we won't ask what they will use it for."

While he acknowledged that the cannabis market is growing, and they it "could be huge for us," it is not what the want to cater toward, because "there is still a lot of political risk."

"We have to make it safe for stock holders and customers so they know that the company wont disappear," he said. "We are not going to jeopardize that."

The origins of IUNU

The ideas for IUNU were planted (no pun intended) in Greenberg from a young age, as his father is an orchid botanist, who told him that the majority of what shapes a plant is the type of light it gets. 

"I didn’t know that, but I went and did the research, and built a team of awesome engineers with specialties in plastics, thermodynamics and design," he said.

Before he did that, though, Greenberg spent two years at Amazon, doing financial marketing and analysis. Working there, he told me allowed him to learn about making business decisions, finding out what worked well, and what doesn’t work.

"I learned project management, how to incentivize and motivate people, and how difficult information symmetry is. Symmetry can kill or help a project," he said. "Information is currency, so keeping it is unacceptable and is grounds for firing. Everyone has to be on the same page, so hiding information can lead to bad business decisions. Everyone across the whole organization has to be able to make well informed decisions."

After leaving Amazon, Greenberg moved to the startup side, where he advised for small startups and founded his first company True Blue Technologies, a company that innovates on water technologies to make water cheaper.

"There is a lot of focus on software and technology, which can be self indulgent and simply feed the ego side of people," he told me. "I wanted to see if we could get innovation to lowest point, meaning food, water and shelter, which are what every person needs."

Even though both of his startups have an altruistic bent, Greenberg does not seem himself as being all that different from his contemporaries in the technology scene.

"Today’s generation, the new age entrepreneur, has a lot of incentive and motivation to trying to change the world, action. It's not just me," he said. "The best way I say it is this: to create a hot dog stand, you have to write a business plan, build a team, create a supply chain. It's almost the same amount of work to make game changing business."

Competition

Given that access to food is such a problem, it has to be asked: why has nobody else solved this yet? According to Greenberg, they were looking at the problem the wrong way.

"There are a lot of companies looking to solve this problem from different angles. But, given the main pain points, the only way to do it was to create whole new technology," he said. "The idea that LEDs create perfect spectrum is wrong. They are inherently not full a spectrum, and don’t penetrate because they are not high intensity enough. Our light penetrates through a plant fully, and gives the full spectrum of the sun."

This new technology is what's enabling the ability to make it more economical, he told me.

Right now there are "hundreds of companies" in this space, including Sharp, Panasonic, and General Electric.

"There has been a lot of focus, because everyone knows we have to go in this direction. It's not a matter of if but when," Greenberg told me. "There are insecurities and worries and concerns that the food supply needs to be owned by each individual country. Our hope is to empower them to sustain their own production  of food. What are most wars started over? Food and water. If we can make secure and available, and cost effective, we can put a stop to that."

Microsoft is just the start

Founded in 2013, IUNU drives revenue by selling the Dual Plasma directly to customers for $2,500 a piece. While the company can't disclose how many customer is currently has, there is one that we know of: Greenberg announced at Splash that IUNU had signed Microsoft as a corporate customer.

The company will use IUNU's light to grow lettuce for its cafeteria.

"People look for brands to legitimatize the product. Microsoft has built trust for our brand. We believe our brand is going to be trusted because Microsoft is using it and that we are moving in the right direction," said Greenberg.

IUNU first got involved with Microsoft has part of its BizSpark program, a community that startups can sign up for that provides free software, support, and visibility.

"We got on their radar through an engineer who has been instrumental and done a lot of work for Microsoft," he said. "We're not just helping them with lights, but helping them grow the most quality products."

When I asked how many corporations are actually doing something similar to Microsoft, Greenberg said that it is hard to say, since many of them "want to use it as a  competetive advantage."

"Most companies are keeping it quiet," he said. "Microsoft, for example, want s to put its own software on the device. We were lucky that they allowed us to share their involvement, since others have not allowed us to say they are customers publically."

As for how many individual consumers are starting to grow their own food, Greenberg said that it's "thousands," especially on the west coast. 

The future of IUNU

IUNU certainly has some lofty and admirable long-term goals, but where does the company see itself going in the shorter term?

Eventually, there are plans to make the light automated, hooking it up with the Internet of Things so that it can automatically detect the perfect amount of light that each plant needs.

"I can’t go into too much detail, but that is what is going to solve a lot of the problem, once we can enable smart growing."

It can also eventually become a platform for software that can manage the entire growing cycle, with IUNU perhaps developing its own apps, or possibily developing an SDK for third-party developers to create their own uses for the device.

That's all up in the air right now, of course, but there is one thing that Greenberg would like to see: every home having two refrigerators, one for one for storing food and one for growing food.

"It is very important to us that we allow anyone to be able to grow hyper-locally."


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