“Experimentation, learning by doing and listening to others is key for any entrepreneur”: Interview with Infarm’s co-founder Osnat Michaeli

Photo by: Merav Maroody

Where did the food on your plate come from? Was it from a neighbouring EU region, or perhaps a vertical urban farm around the corner in your city?

Osnat Michaeli is co-founder and CMO of the fast-growing German agritech scaleup, Infarm. Since 2013, the Berlin-based startup has grown to be one of the world’s fastest growing urban farming networks. In September 2020, Infarm announced a €144 million investment, raised in the first close of a Series C funding round, which is expected to reach around €169 million. Right now they’ve grown to a team of 600+ employees, an impressive feat in 7 years.

This scaleup has covered a lot of ground and has garnered new interest since the pandemic set in and we collectively started thinking more about our food systems. So let’s jump into the interview, to get her insights on scaling a fast-growing team, the future of foodtech, and advice for fellow founders.

Hello Osnat, 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 Infarm?

Just under a decade ago, my two co-founders (Erez and Guy Galonska) and I started Infarm with a mission: to help cities become self-sufficient in their food production while improving the safety, quality, and environmental footprint of our food. We had just moved to Berlin, bought a 1955 Airstream trailer, outfitted it with DIY growing shelves and started experimenting with indoor farming.  Soon we began to build modular, vertical farming units which could be installed in any urban environment, including supermarkets, restaurants, distribution centres and other urban spaces, as close as possible to where food is consumed.

Infarm is based in Berlin. What is your opinion on the environment for creating a tech company there?

We owe a great debt to the Berlin community who received us and welcomed our vision to challenge the status quo in how we transport, plant and harvest our produce in cities.

Moreover, the growth of Europe’s most dynamic tech hubs – London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Helsinki, Dublin and others along with the accompanying inflow of investment is driving a steady reorientation of talent, not only from Europe, but from countries outside of Europe – including my native Israel – to help meet demand.  Our business, which requires highly trained individuals in plant biology and plant science also benefits from the pool of Master’s and Ph.D candidates so plentiful in European markets, including here in Berlin.

Infarm has announced recently closing a €144 million Series C funding round. What are your future plans with such capital?

We believe Infarm has the potential for mass expansion across the world. We have big ambitions, aiming to reach more than 5,000,000 square feet of growing facilities by 2025, and in doing so becoming the largest distributed farming network in the world.

This news comes amidst growing concerns about a second COVID-19 wave. What steps have you taken to safeguard your operations and teams?

What we found was that our farming model was quite resilient, allowing us to respond quickly to the needs of our clients, many of whom themselves were also moving quickly to establish procedures for producer and customer interaction within their retail spaces. We were able to alternate easily to direct delivery of fresh produce from our local hubs where needed if direct store access to our employees or our farms was limited. Across our global network each of our farms is connected to the cloud, allowing us to monitor plant performance, growing environment and make adjustments remotely. We developed a system to guide local teams through farm installation remotely when our installation teams were unable to travel, further minimizing any potential impact from the changing pandemic environment to our operations.

In our offices, as our work environment increasingly became more remote, we began to use office space more creatively, dedicating more space in our Berlin headquarters for example, to areas like marketing, packaging and product design, while establishing a greater number of remote workstations so employees who needed to work on-site could easily do so. We also looked for and found more opportunities to communicate across our teams, not only in terms of regular updates relating to the changing environment, but through groups where we checked in on one another, shared playlists and successful lunchtime dishes, and participated in virtual get togethers to maintain a sense of community.

Over the years, Infarm has grown to more than 600 employees. What tips would you give to someone who wants to build a solid team?

When starting out, it’s important to find the right partners who inspire you, partners whom you trust and you enjoy working with. My co-founders and I elevate one another. We each have a different area of focus and expertise, whether that be branding, operations or technology. We create more together than anything we could possibly produce apart. This is also true for the investors, mentors and employees you bring along. Today, we’ve grown our workforce to hundreds of employees and have brought together people from all kinds of backgrounds and disciplines—data scientists, designers, engineers, scientists and more— as inclusivity and diversity in talent is key.

In your opinion, how is the vertical farming ecosystem doing now compared to when you started?

Back when we first started out, vertical farming was intriguing as a concept for many, but we couldn’t have imagined that a few years later we would be partnering with some of the largest retailers in the world. Our assumptions at the time were that retailers and their customers would be attracted to the taste and freshness of produce that grew right in front of them in the produce section, in our farms. What we didn’t anticipate was how much and how quickly the demand for a sustainable, transparent and modular approach to farming would grow as we, as society, begin to feel the impact of climate change and supply chain fragility upon our lives, our choices and our food. Of course we also did not anticipate a global pandemic, which has underscored the urgency of building a new food system that can democratize access to high quality, amazing tasting food, while helping our planet regenerate and heal. The past few months have confirmed the flexibility and resilience of our farming model, and that our mission is more relevant than ever.

What is it like to build a company from the ground up with Erez and Guy?

It’s great to be able to work with someone you trust, and we’re all very lucky to have found one another to build this together.

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

Passion for what you’re doing is the best foundation. Being an entrepreneur is an ongoing learning process that involves lots of research, trial and error. You have to love it and keep learning new things, because the need to be open to learning and exploring just accelerates over the years as you grow. Experimentation, learning by doing and listening to others is key for any entrepreneur. We learned so much by experimenting with the hydroponic systems we built ourselves. We also gained powerful insights from being active in the food and innovation community by hosting interactive installations, making food, conducting workshops, joining debates and meeting with many inspiring urban planners, designers, food activists, bio-dynamic farmers, architects, chefs, and hackers.

It’s vital to stay focused and enjoy the journey. All entrepreneurs know that there is always the possibility that they might have set-backs, but it’s not constructive to concentrate on that. Stay positive, focus on where you’re going, choose your partners well and the right people and opportunities will cross your path.

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