Fellowship Alumnus Helps Grow the Future of Agriculture

Professional fellowships can be the key to advancing your career or pivoting into a different field. For Sam Schatz, the Alfa Fellowship Program in Russia accomplished these things, but more importantly, it introduced him to AeroFarms, a startup that is currently shaping the future of agriculture. Immediately after returning from a year in Moscow, Sam was hired as the company’s first employee after the founders.

Sam Schatz (center) poses with Cultural Vistas CEO Jennifer Clinton, the Alfa Fellowship Program team, and Asya, a Edmund S. Muskie Program intern who spent summer 2018 at AeroFarms

“If you’re just following your passions and doing what you want to do, opportunities will follow,” said Sam, who is now its Global Head of Farm Development.

Since Sam joined the AeroFarms team, they’ve grown to 110 people, created nine different farms including locations in charter schools, and opened their latest headquarters in a Newark, New Jersey warehouse, where they grow six types of greens 365 days a year.

Walking into AeroFarms’ warehouse certainly feels futuristic. It’s covered floor to ceiling in 12-level growing towers that emit a neon hue from the light spectrum used to grow crops indoors.

AeroFarms uses indoor vertical farming to grow many more crops per acre than a traditional farm.

By using stacked towers to grow their “Dream Greens,” AeroFarms can produce the equivalent of a 390-acre farm using just one acre of warehouse space.  But that’s just the beginning of their innovations in agriculture. Instead of large-scale irrigation systems, they mist their crops with a nutrient-rich solution. Given their indoor growing environment, they don’t have to worry about seasonal changes and can ensure a quality crop year-round.

At a time when the environmental impact of agriculture is paramount for many consumers, AeroFarms is changing the way we think about growing food. They constantly monitor data from their seedlings to try to improve operations, food safety, and environmental footprint. This data-driven approach allows AeroFarms to continually improve their systems.

By misting crops with a nutrient-rich solution, AeroFarms uses 95 percent less water than field farming.

“There’s a lot more people on this planet and a lot less space [to farm] so the idea is to do more with less space,” said Sam of AeroFarms’ approach to agriculture.

Sam has worked in business development since before his Alfa Fellowship Program, but wanted to move from publicly traded companies to private equity and venture capital. The fellowship program places up to 18 Americans, Britons, and Germans a year at work placements in Russia and also offers professional development and language training.  While doing research in possible investments as an Alfa Fellow for Wermuth Asset Management, he came across AeroFarms.

AeroFarms germinates their seeds on a cloth so no soil is needed for the process.

“I just loved the technology and I thought it had tremendous potential,” said Sam. “I basically got lucky because I got a free ticket to look at [AeroFarms] and meet the founders and spend time with them.”

While still in Moscow, Sam helped AeroFarms on a consultant basis and officially joined the team when he returned to the U.S. in summer 2013. At that time, he worked with the founders to procure the initial round of funding they’d need to start up the business.

“I met them and we started the company,” said Sam. “By fall of 2013, we had secured the [initial] funding.”

Sam’s experience on the Alfa Fellowship in 2013 has been a catalyst for career success.

Five years later, AeroFarms has raised approximately $100 million in funding, gotten their Dream Greens into Shoprite, FreshDirect and Whole Foods in the New York City area, and received the support of celebrity chefs like David Chang and Marcus Samuelson, who use AeroFarms’ products in their restaurants.

While their focus is currently on growing high-quality greens, the company wants to expand to new crops and new locations in the future.  Part of Sam’s role at the company is helping them achieve these expansion goals.

“We think we can grow anything with this technology,” said Sam. So keep your eyes peeled for AeroFarms’ crops in your future grocery store.

Alfa alumnus Sam Schatz continues to give back to the exchange community. This summer he helped train Muskie Intern Asya, a Fulbright Fellow from Kazakhstan.