“Everyone can become a city farmer”: Interview with iFarm’s co-founder and CEO Max Chizhov

Today’s agricultural models have shown their limits in terms of their impact on the environment, biodiversity and production. In a bid to reduce pollution, biodiversity loss and shrinking yields, one solution presented has been ‘vertical farming’, otherwise known as growing crops in vertically stacked layers, and in a controlled environment.

We recently caught up with Max Chizhov, co-founder and CEO of Helsinki-based iFarm, a startup founded in 2017 who are providing ‘plug&play’ automated vertical farms for stores, restaurants, warehouses and even homes. We asked him a few questions about things that matter when you’re an entrepreneur and leading your company to grow.

If you’re interested in agtech and the future of food but also in having a positive social impact, reducing our carbon footprint or how to build a solid team in a startup, you’ll find some good advice from Max down below. 

Hello Max, thank you for being with us today. Could you please give us a short overview about how you became an entrepreneur as well as why you founded iFarm? 

In 2017, I was looking for a project that, on the one hand, would be interesting for me from a professional point of view, and on the other, bring tangible benefits to the society. I already had experience in the technological field, that is why I focused on that area. At that time, I also met Alex Lyskovsky, who had just finished a course at a culinary school in France. That experience left him wondering whether it was possible to grow high quality vegetables all year round, regardless of climate conditions and with the least environmental impact, ideally making profit. His story resonated with me, so I researched the topic thoroughly and realized that that was something I really wanted to do — that’s how iFarm was born.

iFarm is based in Vantaa, Finland. What is your opinion on the environment for creating a tech company there? 

Finland offers a favorable environment for tech startups that care about the social side of business as much as the profits. It has a strong community of tech entrepreneurs, an excellent networking base, and government support. 

iFarm has announced recently an approx. €3.6 million seed investment. What are your future plans with such capital? 

The company will use the funding to develop our iFarm Growtune IT platform that enables operations of multiple varieties of vertical farms and quadrupling the number of plants available to iFarm’s tech. In addition, iFarm will be optimizing its automated production lines to reduce labor costs and complete experiments with growing strawberries, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, radish and other crops. 

We are also currently preparing for Series A round, which will take place in Q4’2020 – Q1’2021. Next year we are planning to expand our presence in Northwest and Central Europe and the Middle East.

This news comes amidst great uncertainties with COVID-19. Has the pandemic impacted your activities and priorities as a company? 

Over the last few years, the overall trend in agriculture has been to localize production. This is due to the high rates of urbanization, growth of population, and in 2020 the additional impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the quarantine following it that made the problems of long supply chains and food security even more obvious.

Such conditions make growing vegetables, berries and greens in the immediate vicinity of the consumer a necessity. Countries have begun to think strategically about food security issues, which brought us several large customers.

From the point of view of organizing teamwork, we did not face any difficulties. Even before the pandemic, we had been building processes and implementing tools for smooth work of an effective remote team.

Since 2017, your team has grown to over 20 people. What tips would you give to someone who wants to build a solid team? 

Create a welcoming atmosphere and avoid strict hierarchies. At iFarm, every employee has the opportunity to contact the founders, ask any question or come up with a proposal. This does not require full control over tasks and is based on the trust and professionalism of each team member. Top management is to come to the rescue when necessary and prioritize a large pool of operational issues. This increases the level of employee motivation and loyalty, that is how we manage to achieve our goals and to meet deadlines, while maintaining high quality.

Hire people that share your company’s mission and values, are independent and self-organized. We allow for mistakes to take place, they can happen and it is part of the process. Reflecting on these mistakes, understanding their essence and cause helps employees to become stronger and more confident, and to avoid them in the future.

In your opinion what makes iFarm stand out from the competition? 

iFarm provides a turnkey solution, so our clients do not need to have special knowledge — everyone can become a city farmer and produce crops for sale; traditional agricultural productions will be able to modernize their capacities, and such businesses as HoReCa, retail and food manufacturers will receive a technological solution that ensures uninterrupted supply of ingredients for their dishes and goods.

Another important advantage of iFarm is the range of crops that can be grown using our technology, while most vertical farms in the world produce the same salads and greens, which is often criticized in the market.

What is it like to tackle such an important issue as food and agriculture? 

That is a great challenge and a great responsibility. On the one hand, we want to ensure access to healthy and high-quality food for as many people in the world as possible, on the other hand, we want to conserve the natural resources of our planet and minimize our carbon footprint. Thus, creating iFarm technology, we are always guided by these principles when making decisions that affect this result.

What is your advice to young entrepreneurs looking to kick off their own agtech company? 

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, set ambitious goals, work in a team and remember to delegate.

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