When Stanford GSB alumnus Sky Kurtz first moved to Dubai, he was taken aback by the high prices of fresh produce. “I started buying frozen vegetables, like frozen peas,” he says. “Who knew frozen vegetables would become a staple in my diet because it’s too expensive to buy fresh every day?”
Kurtz, who earned his MBA in 2011, was running into the United Arab Emirates’ supply side issue: The punishingly hot climate means a short growing season, so the country imports nearly 80% of its food, according to the country’s Minister of Economy, Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri. That racks up prices, lowers freshness, and limits variety.
Middle Eastern countries like the UAE are hitting a triple threat: Populations are increasing, climate change is making the area even less hospitable to agriculture, and the world’s dependence on UAE oil is shrinking.
“Most of the region’s strawberry consumption is flying in on airplanes from California,” Kurtz says. “I can’t think of anything environmentally less friendly, and obviously from a supply chain, quality, and freshness perspective, it’s not ideal.”
That combination led Kurtz and his team to create Pure Harvest and a smarter greenhouse.
“We’re using a next-gen, high-tech greenhouse that allows us to manage the very challenging arid climate of the Middle East and to locally grow fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, then sell at a lower cost than comparable quality imports,” Kurtz says.
This greenhouse goes far beyond the traditional glass walls that protect plants from the surrounding environment. It will have a climate chamber that removes heat and humidity from the brutally hot air. That humidity will become water for the strawberries and tomatoes, grown hydroponically in a nutrient-rich bath, without soil, and monitored by sensors to measure nutrients, temperature, and other factors related to plant health. Triple-paned diffuse glass smart windows will deflect heat and temper light levels, while over-pressurized airflow will manage temperatures to within 1 degree Celsius and dose carbon dioxide to the hungry plants to optimize growth.
Kurtz says that over time the company will grow “everything on a vine — tomato, capsicum, cucumber, strawberry, aubergine,” and through partnerships with other tech companies in the industry, it will also bring leafy greens, microgreens, and herbs and spices to the region. “We can grow all of these water-dense, transportation-sensitive crops locally, as opposed to ‘shipping water’ by flying lettuce from California.”
Pure Harvest was launched in 2016 by Stanford GSB alumni Sky Kurtz (who graduated in 2011) and Mahmoud Adi (2015), and by Robert Kupstas, who received a masters degree from Stanford in International Policy Studies in 2013. The three met in the United Arab Emirates through the Stanford University network. In the past year and a half, Pure Harvest raised $5.6 million in venture funding, hired a design firm, built the leadership and operations teams, and began construction on the commercial-scale proof-of-concept greenhouse this past December. The company hopes to plant crops by late June and to be producing fresh fruits and vegetables by late July. Customers who either contractually or verbally committed to Pure Harvest include major retailers and airline caterers.
Compared to lower-tech greenhouses, Pure Harvest’s prototype is expected to yield six to eight times more food per meter using just one-seventh the water, says Kurtz. Compared to traditional field farming, it is 32 times more water efficient while producing 17 to 23 times more food per area.
“The technology that we are using has been demonstrated around the world in extreme climates, including Arizona, Texas, Northern Mexico, and Australia, and then in freezing climates as well, like Russia, Finland, and Norway,” Kurtz says. “But nobody’s made the investments to adapt the technology to deliver it to this uniquely challenging region.”
Of course, high-tech farming isn’t cheap, and Kurtz declined to disclose what Pure Harvest is spending per meter. “I will say it’s significant,” he says. But when the greenhouse begins to produce at scale at about 30,000 square meters, he says his produce will be 20 to 40% cheaper than imported fresh foods. Kurtz noted that comparable greenhouses have been built and are operational around the world at well over 220,000 square meters.
The company faces other challenges as well. The government subsidizes water and power to low-tech farms, which Kurtz says makes them more cost-competitive with Pure Harvest than they might otherwise be. Also, marketing issues have historically deterred customers at the shelf, where they perceive local produce as lower quality than air-freighted imports. Further, hydroponically grown food isn’t permitted to be labeled as “organic,” which Kurtz calls an “unworthy debate” stemming from protectionism by European and other soil producers.
Finally, wooing investors proved challenging, particularly in the Middle East and away from Silicon Valley’s venture capital world. “Investors wrote a $200 million check to a vertical farming player with an impressive prototype in South San Francisco,” Kurtz notes, “and here in the Middle East, where the need is highly evident and we’re deploying large-scale, proven technology, it took us eight months of ground-pounding to raise just $4.5 million.”
His message to investors: “We are delivering a true and tangible food security solution to the region, improving sustainability, and have the potential to deliver a large social impact, and we would welcome a large pile of smart money over here because the opportunity is massive.”
This is a multi-part series on the future of food.