Alumnus Seeks to Feed the World
Imagine an indoor agricultural system that uses 98 percent less water, 95 percent fewer pesticides, and yet yields 250 times more plants per square foot twice as quickly as traditional farming. Imagine location, climate, and soil fertility are no longer pervasive inhibitors. Now envision that system is fully automated and producing 5 million pounds of food per year in a footprint smaller than a football field footprint. What you’re seeing in your mind’s eye is OnePointOne, the brainchild of mechanical engineering alumnus Sam Bertram ’16 (and M.S. imminent), and his brother John.
Born and raised in Australia, Sam came to Santa Clara University on a tennis scholarship. Despite not having taken any math, physics, or engineering courses, he transferred into the mechanical engineering program after deciding that engineering was cool. “The first quarter was absolute hell—I almost failed my first midterms—but I’m a hard worker and was able to grind through it,” he remembered. Soon, he was working in the School of Engineering’s Maker Lab, then as Research Assistant and Teacher’s Assistant in the Robotics Systems Laboratory (RSL) for three summers. “Almost all of the practical knowledge I have comes from the RSL—electronic components, coding, mechanical design—all of it weaves into what’s required of engineers today. You need to be familiar with it all, and Professor Kitts [Christopher Kitts, mechanical engineering professor and director of the RSL] was always willing to sacrifice his own time to help his students learn,” he asserted.
“Sam is bit of a poster child for the School of Engineering’s KEEN program,” said Kitts, referring to the School of Engineering’s comprehensive efforts to champion the entrepreneurial mindset in undergraduate students. “He’s taken the Smart Products course, participated in contests and competitions, attended our speaker and mentoring events, and met many other budding and serial entrepreneurs. It’s very exciting to see the impact the program is having on our students.”
Technical skillsets and an entrepreneurial mindset were key components to launching a startup, but Sam and his brother (an electrical engineer) wanted to apply their knowledge toward something socially valuable. “We started looking into the world’s largest sectors. Transportation and energy entice billions in venture funding, but agriculture, by comparison, is barren. Others are working to figure out how to optimize outdoor farming, but with exploding populations and an increased prevalence of environmental malaise, we believe indoor, vertical farming has tremendous potential for good. There are 1.1 billion people in the world who are physiologically malnourished; many don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The concept of pervasive malnourishment was galvanizing. We named our company OnePointOne to represent our mission to introduce food security to those 1.1 billion individuals,” he explained.
Indoor, vertical farming is not a new idea, but fully automating the brothers’ aeroponics growing process using advanced robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence is novel. Sam took on the design and demonstration of the prototype as his graduate capstone project. “We sow our produce on metal growth structures that are 12 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and 1 foot deep. With aeroponics, the plants’ roots hang in the air and you mist them with 20 to 50 micron droplets of water and nutrients. Growing plants indoors means you are outside the whims of rain, wind, sun, and pests; everything is controlled, so food can grow organically. The clear differentiator is our ability to automate the entire process,” he said. “Our plan is to remove human beings from all operational processes inside the growth facility. Cultivation, harvesting, packaging, sanitation, and system maintenance will all be automated.”
With his capstone work well underway, things really took off when Sam, then working part time as a tennis coach at The Bay Club in Los Gatos, California, (“where half the members are executive VPs or higher,” he explained) started giving lessons to Michael Steep, Executive Director of Stanford University’s Digital Cities Program. After three or four lessons, Sam pitched OnePointOne and Steep was intrigued. “He liked the idea and said it aligned well with what they were doing at Stanford. He told me, ‘If you’re willing to work hard, I’m willing to help.’ I’m always willing to work hard, so he gave me about two months’ worth of homework to complete in two weeks, and with his guidance, I managed to get it all done. All in all, I think I’ve gotten about a half million dollars’ worth of free consulting!” Sam said.
Free consulting, plus for the past year, Sam has been incubating the company in Santa Clara University’s EdVenture Lab. “It’s been fantastic having the support of SCU and the space to grow our idea. I can bring investors here to pitch, and the lab has injected money to build a prototype and fund undergraduates to help with the design work and financials. It’s been super exciting to me, as a small fish, to have strong support from both SCU and Stanford,” he said.
Through Steep’s connections, Sam has pitched OnePointOne to Stanford’s Farmers Investment Club, a mini angel investment group of the University’s engineering faculty, past and present, and to a partner in Blackhorn Ventures, among others. “The first time I met with Blackhorn, I had TA duty in the RSL in the morning, then drove to Ames where the prototype is housed in the RSL’s space in the NASA Ames Research Center. When I got there, the $3,000 prototype wasn’t working; the pump had blown and all the plants were dead. These were the first serious guys I’d brought in, but I just had to laugh because the timing for a $70 pump to fail was so ridiculous.”
Turns out the “serious guys” could see the promise of OnePointOne, and funded the fledgling company. To date, the startup has $330,000 invested, and $1.3 million committed of its $1.7 million initial round of funding; they are in talks with Amazon and Google, and have filed two provisional patents for their automated system. Also exciting: a growing list of employees who have all graduated from or are currently involved with SCU’s Robotics Systems Lab. “Paul Mahacek is leaving his job at SpaceX, Aaron Schooley is leaving his at NASA, Robert McDonald, Scot Tomer, and SCU junior Zach Bellay '19 are all part of the team. They all have exceptional drive and believe in the vision wholeheartedly,” Sam said.
“In five years we see OnePointOne scaling to compete with a thousand acre outdoor farm,” he continued. “It’s hard work, and significant profitability is a requirement. We are a number of years away from addressing food deserts in cities like Oakland and New York, where people are more than five miles away from fresh food, though the goal remains. I want to deliver nutritious, delicious produce to people who do not currently have access to it. We need to prove that it is cheaper to grow food this way, and that we can do it. Ethics or morality is the driver of OnePointOne—we’ve woven it into the bylaws that when we achieve x-number of dollars of profit we will build in places where we won’t be as profitable—but we must take one foot before the other.
“My goal in coming to the United States,” he added, “was to contribute as much as I can to society and learn as much as I can in the shortest amount of time possible. Starting a business is a perfect way to do so. What an experience!”