In 2018, the early-stage Agtech startups Root and AppHarvest joined the F&A Next summit. It was here that the founders, Josh Lessing and Jonathan, first met. It was a great match. After a period of working closely together, AppHarvest acquired Root in 2021 for $60M. Now Josh and Jonathan are scaling their joint business into a global Agtech powerhouse.
In May 2018, Josh Lessing, co-founder of the Boston-based Root AI, travelled to the Netherlands to take the stage at F&A Next, as one of the world’s top Agtech startups to define the future of agriculture. This was particularly impressive considering that he had founded his company just a few months earlier, together with his former-colleague Ryan Knopf. Even though the company was just getting off the ground, Josh and Ryan were ambitious from the get-go: aimed to fuel an agricultural revolution by digitizing and automating the food economy.
With a growing number of mouths to feed and a shrinking agricultural workforce, Josh and Ryan realized that farmers would need to figure out how to better staff and operate their farms in order to produce enough food for local markets. Using their expertise in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), they developed a harvesting robot, called ‘Virgo’. The robot was designed to be dexterous and harvest the same way a person would. They quickly taught Virgo how to pick ripe tomatoes without bruising them. However, the bot was designed to eventually harvest a variety of crops, as Josh had already announced at the time.
“A greenhouse is like a Formula 1 race car. You can get a lot of performance out of it if you truly understand how a car operates and how it responds to the drivers actions. A race-driver can go much faster and pull tighter turns. When you know how to run a greenhouse at its best, the results can be similarly astonishing.”
Meeting investors, farming companies and… AppHarvest
Through a friend at Anterra Capital, which is one of the founders and organizers of F&A Next, Josh learned that ‘the Dutch had created some of the biggest innovations in agriculture and operate on the forefront of sustainable Agtech.” When he also heard about F&A Next, he believed that the summit could be an excellent showcase opportunity for his startup and provide a chance to attract early-stage investors and potential partners.
“I did my talk and met lots of interesting people, including Rabobank, many investors and farming companies. Which was already great and valuable. Then my friend at Anterra Capital, Dan Harburg, insisted on also meeting this one guy, called Jonathan Webb,” Josh said.
A year earlier, Jonathan had founded the Kentucky-based greenhouse operator, AppHarvest. His ambition for AppHarvest was to turn his dream of a high-tech farming hub in Appalachia (USA) into reality. In 2017, Jonathan decided to turn Appalachia into the AgTech capital of America by building some of America’s largest greenhouses, combining conventional agriculture techniques with today’s technology to grow non-Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), chemical free produce.
The meeting between Josh and Jonathan would mark the beginning of a thriving partnership.
Entrepreneurial soul mates
“AppHarvest was a small startup at the time, but when looking into Jonathan’s eyes you could already see the global version of his company, as if it already existed. It was nothing short of big and bold. We instantly connected really well from the moment we met at F&A Next,” Josh said.
After F&A Next, Josh and Jonathan stayed in close contact.
“Before we knew it, we were in touch repeatedly; helping each other out, exchanging information in the industry and technology, but also helping each other grow a network and investors,” Josh explained. “Always finding a way to work in close collaboration. Jonathan was also very much involved raising our $7.2 million seed round from a group of investors, including Agfunder, in the summer of 2020.”
Acquisition doubled robot performance
After working with each other more and more closely, Jonathan called Josh early in 2021 with the idea of acquiring Root under the AppHarvest brand. He strongly felt that the combination of AppHarvest and Root would allow both companies to become a global high-tech company that delivers a complete solution for the food and agri-sector.
“The idea made perfect sense, we had already discussed potential ways to deepen our relationship before. All pieces of the puzzle came together at that very moment.” Just a few months later, the acquisition of Root by AppHarvest was a fact,” Josh said.
Josh recognizes that the matchmaking between him and Jonathan at F&A Next accelerated the pace of developments for both Root and AppHarvest. Even more so after Root fully immersed in AppHarvest.
“Joining AppHarvest provided Root continuous testing opportunities in greenhouses, which allowed us to get an even more intimate understanding of growers’ needs. As a result, our harvesting robot has doubled in performance in just a few months time,” said Josh.
Building a global agtech powerhouse
So, what’s next?
Josh would like to return to F&A Next this year, as he is looking for partners to grow the AppHarvest ecosystem.
“We are a group of complimentary companies that unitedly form a global agtech powerhouse. And we are looking for both strategic and financial partners that want to be part of this ecosystem and support the launch of our technologies globally. It would be great to build new game-changing partnerships at F&A Next, as we deed in 2018,” he said.
“See you in Wageningen on 18 & 19 May!”