#115, Guy Elitzur, CEO of Vertical Field

Guy Elitzur holds significant management experience. He currently serves as CEO of Vertical Field, a leading agro-tech provider of vertical farming and living green wall solutions for urban environments and smart cities.

He previously headed up STK Bio-ag Technologies (STK), a leading global crop protection company as its CEO and served as a member of the board. At STK, Elitzur led the company to successful geographical expansion and fundraising of $90 million in return for a majority stake. Prior to this, Guy served private and public companies in senior executive roles. He is a licensed CPA and earned his L.L.M. from Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Bigger Than Us Episode 115

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  01:43

If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Guy Elitzur  01:53

I’m finding myself in the last 10 years working in agriculture and farming, which you know, it’s the opposite of what I learn and study. I’m a CPA. And if you’d have told me 20 years ago that I would deal with agriculture and farming, I will probably laugh. Although when I was a kid, you know, farming and working in the field was something that I imagined myself doing. So you know, sometimes you have to go forward 30 years to find yourself fulfilling your dream. So that’s something that, you know, makes me very happy these days.

Host Raj Daniels  02:36

That is interesting. And I want to kind of double down on that point for a minute there. What made you transition from being a CPA into agriculture?

Guy Elitzur  02:44

I think that initially, I always thought of numbers and working with numbers. And so I went on to learn CPA, accounting and found myself trying to find impact and additional value in what I’m doing. And I think that over the years when you got mature, and you got your own kids and family, and you understand the importance of growing the foods and changing the food change, and the impact on the environment. So I wanted to do something higher impact. And then I went to work for an x ag company, and I integrate there quite well became the CEO of the company, and worked for more than a decade in the ag space, fulfilling myself every day.

Host Raj Daniels  03:38

So what kind of work did you do at this ag company?

Guy Elitzur  03:42

So the company was a company that has developed biological pesticides. We are aware of the environmental harm and the bad impact on the human health of chemical pesticides. The toxic products that are being sprayed and all over the globe. And our company has developed a biological much safer and healthier pesticide in order to change the products that are been sprayed over our food, which is zero residues, of course, and much, much better impact on land and on air and on other environmental aspects. And basically, change the level of food that we are consuming and the bad impact that we’re having on earth.

In the last hundreds of years, we have most moved as human beings from forests to the city, built buildings over buildings, and forgot that we are part of nature. We believe that bringing nature back into the city as part of our normal life, that’s a crucial element to sustain human humanity on earth.

Host Raj Daniels  04:41

Well, it sounds like you made a really big impact there. Now, transitioning to your current role, can you share with the audience, what Vertical Field is and does and your role at the organization?

Guy Elitzur  04:52

Sure. Vertical Field exists since 2006 and the division that more and more people are coming to live in the city, resources like land and water are becoming more precious. And the fact that the life in the city becomes more crowded, you need to make sure that in the city, you can have a quality of life, the quality of life is measured in the quality of food that we’re consuming, and in the air that we are breathing, and in other elements that created the quality of life in the urban ecosystem.

And so over the years, Vertical Field has developed different types of natural solutions that are based on nature on plants, together with the chronology to improve that quality of life. So we are talking about green walls and green roofs, vertical agriculture that are integrated as integral elements in green buildings. And by that improving the heat that the building has on the environment, the level of carbon it consumed, the level of pollution in the air that we know now, and plants are having that impact. But together with the technology that we have developed, we’re able to measure that and to change it as we go along to improve that this condition in the urban ecosystem. And lately, in the last two years, we have taken this now into vertical farming. Other the same vision of growing the food inside the city, creating more jobs, and of course, providing better and healthier food to the population with no need for transportation and lowering the environmental impact on that sense as well.

Host Raj Daniels  06:51

So obviously, without giving away trade secrets, can you share how green wall or green roof works? 

Guy Elitzur  06:58

Sure, so we do understand we all know about the breathing and the photosynthesis process that happens with the plants. And by fact that you can grow the plants in a vertical way without capturing space and space, as we all know, are very expensive in the urban ecosystem in the city. And if you can use the walls, indoor and outdoor, and cover them with plants, and measure the rapid process of breathing of the plant, and being able to impact that through lights and through different elements. And by that improving the elements that at the end of the day impact the level of purification of air indoor, or the level of heating, highland heating outside of a building, you can definitely use these elements in order to reduce the bad impacts on the environment from one side. From the other side and use less electricity and less chemical elements to create the same impact. So using nature in a way that brings value to the city.

In the last hundreds of years, we have most moved as human beings from forests to the city, built buildings over buildings, and forgot that we are part of nature. We believe that bringing nature back into the city as part of our normal life, that’s a crucial element to sustain human humanity on earth.

Host Raj Daniels  08:35

Recently, I read an article about I’m going to say they’re called living walls or perhaps green walls in Japan, where they had these look like you know, barriers almost that separate buildings. But they actually were growing fruits and vegetables on these walls and the people that were around them could take these you know essentially for free. Does Vertical Field do anything like that?

Guy Elitzur  08:58

Yes, we are dealing with crops in the last few years and we are growing crops outdoor and indoors. We have developed a vertical farm inside the container we are recycling containers and shifting them to be a farm the farm can be located either in the parking lot of a supermarket market on the roof of a restaurant. And in places where there is high consumption of food, and the farm provides food constantly with no dependency on the weather condition. With the consumption of less water and less land. no pesticides are used in this farm. And the consumer is able to benefit from fresh healthy food.

And you know if we’re talking about COVID, for example, so what we experienced in COVID I think it’s given us a lot of emphasis on that, where we experience that people are for one side got more sensitive an awareness and aware about the sourcing of the food and where they can see they own the farm and the only person that is doing the farming and package and providing them the produce that gives a different level of comfort on the safe and cleanness of the food. And the other side that we saw that flight were not conducted and trucks were stuck. And farmers had to destroy the product from one side while the other side the shelf from the supermarkets were empty and part of the time and the fact that the supermarket or restaurant can keep working and keep having its ingredients with no dependency on that transportation. I think that’s a huge advantage, especially right now.

Host Raj Daniels  10:45

I agree, it sounds like a great advantage. Can you share the business model? You mentioned restaurants and supermarkets. How does the business model work? Do they rent the container from you? You know, what does it look like?

Guy Elitzur  10:55

It’s a good question we have a different business model depends on the customer. So in one of them were selling the farm and the farm and the owner is operating and running the farm. We have a very interesting case study in the state in the north of New York, where we sold the farm to a restaurant the shelf himself is running the farm enjoying doing farming and providing fresh ingredients to the menu on the same day. And the other business model is the one that we are installing the farm will operate that from A to Z and providing the produce on a long term agreement with the supermarket or with the food company in a way that we provide him a better quality of food on one side the better or different shopping experience to his consumer. And from inside is not changing anything is keep buying it they will keep buying the produce as they did so far, but they getting different levels of products.

Host Raj Daniels  11:56

Now, you mentioned restaurants, supermarkets, are you working with any other kind of institutions such as schools, universities?

Guy Elitzur  12:02

We do, we have a couple of different customers, which are it’s a combination of economic but also social and health benefits. For example, and we have a senior house that we sold the farm in the senior house parking lot and the senior citizen are part of doing the farming so they’re participating in the farming it as scientific proof of the connection between farming and Alzheimer and others and farming the food inside the dining room.

And we are working with schools where we are combining the farming together with teaching them what does it mean, farming? This generation are believing that farming is, you order the tomato through the tablets and yeah, exactly, you know, I’m talking about my son, right, I’m asking our tomatoes growing, you just taking the ends and doing like that, you know, on the screen. And that is how we order the tomato. But that’s we know that that’s not our tomato is being grown. So teaching them you know, teaching them to the way of farming, modern farming. But on top of that, I think for us, it’s important to convey the message that this generation that are going to be the leaders of the world in few years, they have to take responsibility of how the food is being grown and to make sure that we secure the quality and the quantity of the food for future generation.

And for us, it’s you know, it’s an amazing experience working with them, and teaching with them about technology and about advanced farming and precise farming. And of course, through that, we are teaching them that they will have to take responsibility of the food in future generations. So that’s another element. And we do have another interesting project with the municipality of Tel Aviv, where the municipality of Tel Aviv is they have the project of providing food to the WIC population. And by putting our farm in the in few spots in Tel Aviv, as we grow the food and they’re they’re shipping the food to this population inside the city. And by that day securing the level of food but also the level of nutrition and the level of the quality of the food which is not less important to this type of population. So as you see there, the opportunity for food are endless. And definitely, the way of growing food inside the city provide endless opportunity with different stakeholders.

Host Raj Daniels  14:51

You know, I love the idea of the modular farm for senior citizens. It’s been said that there are so many health benefits just to engage with nature. And I just see that a lot of times these senior citizens are in these, you know, assisted living center or home and they’re just cooped up inside all day watching television or doing, you know, no activity. So I think that’s a beautiful idea. And switching to your technology for a minute, in my research, I came across, what is VF geoponic versus hydroponic.

Guy Elitzur  15:20

So there’s a few different ways of growing and farming. And I think what most of the other vertical farming companies are doing are using the hydroponic growing method, which is basically the plants, the roots of the plants are grown on a flow of water, that through the waters, you get the minerals and nutrition that the plant needs. And it’s a constant flow of water. And that’s why it called hydroponically. We have developed geoponic, which is soil-based platform. We believe that, you know, God created the worlds and plants, their natural way is growing through soil, and not through any other basis. And why you’re growing this on soil, you’re getting a different quality of produce, different tastes, different textures, even different smell. And on top of that, when you work with soil, soil is used as a buffer, I mean, instead of injection, the plants, the nutrition and the and the vitamins, we’re putting everything in the soil and the plant taking them whenever you need whatever he needs. And by that is grow in better and better quality, of course.

And on top of that, if you’re providing the farm to be managed by an unskilled person, you can do that only by using soil in our portable platform that facilitates the entire farming cycles in a way that anyone after a short training can manage the farm. I think that’s one element that differentiates us from the other competitors. And we truly believe that at the end of the day, plants are meant to be grown in soil. And I think that’s why we believe that our system provides a different quality of produce at the end of the day.

I think that leading a company that bringing new innovation in agriculture, and you actually speak with the consumer and speak with the farmers and you see the change that your products are doing…I think that’s there’s nothing better than that.

Host Raj Daniels  17:16

And speaking of produce, what kind of crops can you grow in your farm, and what are the cycles, the harvesting cycles?

Guy Elitzur  17:24

Currently, we’re growing mainly leafy greens, lettuce and herbs. We do develop farms from for mushrooms, different types of mushroom,s and for berries. And it’s under development, I would say that the critical elements of the development is making everything economic at the end of the day, we truly believe that fresh produce and fresh food should be achieved by anyone. It shouldn’t be an issue of price, it should be an issue of accessibility. And by providing food, fresh food and fruits and vegetables in a way that it’s cheap enough for everyone to buy that, then you make it that change, you really change the world. It’s not just a premium product, it’s a product that can be at the end of the day be accessible economically, to anyone. And our vision that in a few years, we’ll be able to grow economically, all the fresher food or most of the fresh produce nearby the store nearby the supermarket near in the city. And by dead making the trends of farm to table much more strong and wide access.

Host Raj Daniels  18:41

Now, earlier you mentioned you know, you said I think unskilled labor and I appreciate the term. But let’s say for example, there’s someone listening to the show right now and they’re interested in buying one of your farms. What does that training period look like before they’re able to you know, take over and run it by themselves?

Guy Elitzur  18:57

So the training period is not that long. At the end of the day, there is a software that managed the entire growing cycles, the irrigation, fertilization, the lighting, everything is automatic. And basically, there is an economical protocol inside the software that makes all the growing second very easy. So we’re talking about few days of training. And after one second, believe me, this person is an expert of managing the farms. And you know I love to be farmers but I have bad experience with growing plants inside my house. But even me, after a short training I’m able to manage the farm so believe me, anyone can do that.

Host Raj Daniels  19:36

I appreciate that. And you know earlier you mentioned about working with municipalities and I that idea really resonated for me very strongly. I don’t know about in Israel but here in the US we have this issue in certain areas. It’s called a food desert essentially where people in a certain you know socioeconomic demographic can’t get access or don’t have access to fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, especially at a reasonable price. And I’m just thinking about, you know what it would look like to buy, you know, some of your containers, I don’t if you did it buy model, rent model and put them in areas where people have access to this food.

Guy Elitzur  20:10

So again, the business model, I think it’s rare, it’s less important, I think the fact that you can install the farm anywhere, plug it to electricity waters and start operating that and provide fresh and healthy food in a costly or in economic price. And make it accessible to people where you don’t have to ship them. Something that was picked or harvested a few days ago, but something that is big right now. And with a reasonable price, it definitely creates a change in their life. So definitely, that’s something that we are involved in, and we’d like to be more and more involved.

Host Raj Daniels  20:51

You mentioned electricity, do your containers come with solar panels?

Guy Elitzur  20:56

The current farm, no, but we definitely are working on that on the development. So the idea is to make it self-sustaining. And that can be put anywhere with no connections, or whether it’s water on electricity or working on different technology to add it to the farm. So the farm can be a place in the desert or any place with no dependency on infrastructure.

Host Raj Daniels  21:19

Sounds like a great idea. So, Guy, I’m going to switch gears here and get to the crux of our conversation. And you’ve kind of touched on it before you know the transition from being a CPA going to agriculture. But walk me through that decision, what’s the why behind what you do what motivated you to make that move? You mentioned your children’s obviously, family’s important to you, but walk me in the audience through that that why moment for you.

Guy Elitzur  21:43

So I think that on my 30th, I found myself doing big deals involving big transactions, making big money, and involving the public companies, you know, like the best any CPA can imagine, I would say, but I felt that I missing something. I felt that I’m missing the impact, I feel that I’m missing the importance of what are the proportion of what importance in life. And I was looking to do a greater impact to be involved with something that is involving change, involving an edge, good to the humankind, and environmental aspect. And I thought that, and again, I had this dream when I was kid. So I think it unconsciously led me to agriculture. And I joined this agricultural company, and I think that I enjoy it very much. And probably they enjoy me because they offer me to be the CEO. And I think that leading a company that bringing new innovation in agriculture, and you actually speak with the consumer and speak with the farmers and you see the change that your products are doing, your solution are doing. I think that’s there’s nothing better than that. I think that’s so it was it was evolution, it was a process. And I think something burned in myself to do that change. And it happens over time, of course, but that was some kind, you know, in retrospect, retrospectively view,  I think some something led me into that situation.

23:25

So you mentioned you know, as a child being interested in perhaps farming and agriculture, was your family involved in agriculture?

Guy Elitzur  23:33

Yeah, the part of the family had a farm, would grow vegetables and during summertime, as I was visiting the farm, it attracted me a lot and working outside indoor and seeing the seed become a crop and the crop become food thing that didn’t amaze me when I was a kid and it was tracked me and I, you know, I had the dream to be a farmer. So I’m doing different types of farming, but that’s, that’s, you know, that’s still excitement still extract a lot of passion out of me.

Host Raj Daniels  24:12

And you mentioned you have kids, what are your kids think about the vertical farms?

Guy Elitzur  24:16

Well, we went through different stages that was you know, initially, it was strange to them. And you know, Israel considered to be a startup nation. So everybody or most of the kids, most of the kids, their parents are doing are working in high-tech company and doing all kinds of technology, whether it’s a software or hardware, and when I was telling them that I’m going to go working in agriculture, you should have looked their face. I think that gradually they understand that the importance of that was a lot of discussion important of that, the impact that it has versus other industries, and they are much more involved in you know, in that decision making. I’m consulting with them in all kinds of issues. And we have Saturday dinner working on all kinds of elements of agriculture, innovation, and technology. And I think they’re quite engaged and involved in that. So they also went through a different process together with myself. And I think they enjoy talking, they come to visit me on the farms and helped me during summertime. So we’re on the same line.

Host Raj Daniels  25:28

Sounds great to hear. So you said CPA, transition to agriculture, and now leading vertical field? What are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Guy Elitzur  25:43

You know, that the news isn’t always talking about sustainability and food, the transition and agricultural innovation, you don’t meet it on a daily basis, if you’re not dealing with that. And most of my friends are not dealing with that. And you know, the conversation with them usually doesn’t reach into that point. But to see that, at the end of the day, the things that you’re doing, the impact that it has on different people, the positive reaction people has on that, I think that surprised me, the contradiction between the discussion that you’re having on a daily basis versus the impact and the reaction of people positive reaction of the people. I think that surprised me. And I think every day we see consumer, we make consumer we talk about and we explain them, and see consumer, understanding what we’re doing the benefits that we’re bringing, and then benefit reaction, not just on the buying side, but also the positive energy and dynamic that it creates in their face. I think it’s a great pleasure from our side.

Host Raj Daniels  26:57

Which sounds beautiful. So it’s, I know, you’re the CEO. So obviously, it’s your job to cast a strategic vision. So let’s imagine for a moment, it’s 2025. I’m sure you’ve done this exercise already somewhere in your mind. What does the future hold for Vertical Field? What do you see? Where are you located? Perhaps, you know, not from a unit perspective, maybe. But even from a geographical standpoint, where are you? What are you doing?

Guy Elitzur  27:19

So let me surprise you and saying that it’s not just in my mind, I have a long presentation on 2025.

Host Raj Daniels  27:26

I’m not surprised, trust me.

Guy Elitzur  27:29

So I truly believe that vertical field will operate in many countries will bring this innovation solution to not just to supermarkets and restaurants, but also on the governmental and public level to changing the way that we consume food, the way that we grow food, changing the mindset of people. And I think that our technology with the differentiation that I explained can make this change, make this impact in different countries. As mentioned, we’re working in the US we’re negotiating other negotiating in other countries. And so we do expect to see a geographical expansion from one side. And from the other side, I do expect us to be able to provide and offer a wide range of crops at the end of the day, and being the real long arm farm of any store, any restaurant, any food company, any hotel, and ingredients that the food is cooked, out of or prepared out of can be fresher, healthier, and on-site.

When you do something that you like to do, the result will always be positive.

Host Raj Daniels  28:43

So since you mentioned other countries, two questions, are you doing any work in Africa? And what’s the model? Is it a franchise model? Is it a distributed distributed model sales channel?

Guy Elitzur  28:53

It’s all of the above it depends on the customer. So we are doing we are talking about franchising. We’re talking about selling we’re talking about this evolution thing. Because of the fact that it’s a farm and can be served different types of customers. So the business model or business or the operational model is could be different. And I think it’s each one of them has its own need and we’re trying to be flexible and to adapt ourselves to that. We don’t yet work in Africa, but we do have plans on reaching that continent. Definitely a lot of opportunities over there. So again, 2025, I guess Africa will be part of our business later.

Host Raj Daniels  29:34

And one last question that came to me just now let’s say an individual has access to their own containers. Is there a model where they can license your technology?

Guy Elitzur  29:45

Yes, yes, definitely. I think anyone can come in licensing buy it. So we do we are open to all kinds of collaboration. And I have to say that down the road, we also have, say ideas or plan to develop small units that can be used by, you know, families or neighborhood. And so definitely we see the farms access on the own level on the house level or and also on the neighborhood level, not just the commercial level.

Host Raj Daniels  30:20

It sounds great. So Guy, last question. If you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, and it could be professional or personal, what would it be?

Guy Elitzur  30:31

Well, you know, it’s going to be some kind of cliche, but I feel that I have to say it anyway. Because that’s what I feel. When you do something that you like to do, the result will always be positive. And finding myself doing whatever the thing that I like to do, I think that, you know, you enjoy that you bring your good energy. And at the end of the day, the business results are the result of that. And I think it might be cliche, but you know, that’s what I feel.

www.verticalfield.com

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels