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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Vertical Future

We caught up with Jamie Burrows, CEO & Founder of Vertical Future as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Vertical Future is a technology that is focused on improving population health in cities, set to redefine the way food is produced and delivered.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Jake @ ADLIB: Hi Jamie, great to meet you. Can you please start us off with an introduction to you and Vertical Future please?

Jamie: I’m Jamie Burrows and I’m the Founder & CEO of Vertical Future. My background is primarily in healthcare and life sciences, had a stint in the Air Force in the US, did a couple of degrees, and then went into consulting. I’ve worked for companies like EY & Deloitte, working in the Department of Health while doing a part-time Ph.D. in Healthcare Economics and then decided to start up Vertical Future.

I’ve always had an interest in urbanisation and the way that interacts with health. Food is the catalyst for what we do as there are other things that we can focus on like air pollution or housing, but we decided that food is the most relevant issue to solve, next to water, in our time.

Vertical Future is a London-based technology company, founded in 2016. Our mission is to improve population health by building a better, smarter, and more efficient food production system. Last year there were only 4 of us but since September last year, we’ve grown the team to around 20 people. We’re not necessarily a young team like a lot of start-ups. Our Head of Engineering, for example, has 35 years’ experience from technology engineering companies and our Head of Plant R&D is the former Head of Gene Discovery & Computational Research at British American Tobacco and has a Cambridge Ph.D. and 20 years’ industry experience.

We focused on getting well-qualified people into the roles that we were hiring for as, especially on the technology side, it a really complex area. I think you need to make sure that you have a very mature team so that you can eliminate any potential errors that can lead to cost overruns and using that first to market advantage.

Jake @ ADLIB: From working with lots of start-ups, I agree that having more senior “big hitters” in a company is much more advantageous than having teams of less experienced people. How has the journey at Vertical Future been so far and tell us about what inspired you to set the company up?

Jamie: On the personal side, I lost both parents to cancer in the space of a year and a half, had two kids, moved house and country house, moved jobs twice, and decided “if I’m going to do anything, then I’m going to do it now”. I wanted a fresh start and maybe it was a mid-life crisis!

At the start we were completely bootstrapped, it was really just me and my co-founder and wife, and the first couple of years, because of the way that we had initially set it up, was tough. We wanted to, first of all, become experts in vertical farming and to do that was to immerse ourselves and use other people’s technologies to really understand how the market works, how products are sold, and how to grow stuff. We also wanted to see what the major issues were with current technology providers and there are a lot!

We spent around 2 years growing a customer base of around 100 restaurants, mainly in central London. I was working 80 hours weeks, and not kidding, over 6- or 7-day weeks. I was working nights as well as we needed to respond to the needs of restaurants who were working well in evenings and nights. I was finishing at 4 am or 5 am most nights, sleeping on my couch or trying to watch my kids whilst my wife (Co-founder of the company) did all of the deliveries during the day and also took care of other aspects of the business.

We were really a small family business at the beginning but as we had built a good customer base and were able to raise some more money, we got to a position where people could come in to help us and grow the business. It was very tough, and I lost a lot of weight, but I don’t regret it because I did what I had to, and I learnt the business from the bottom up.

Jake @ ADLIB: If we start talking about People, can you talk us through that transition from a small family business to 4 and now to 20?

Jamie: It hasn’t been that difficult really! It has been so positive so far and we have some great people who have come on board. It obviously changes the dynamics as the team grows especially as it’s a husband and wife Co-founder team, which can be a bit odd for people coming in, but we make sure the lines are there between personal and professional. Because we brought in more experienced people, in general, it’s made it much easier because they’ve worked in lots of different environments. Interestingly, none of them have actually worked in start-ups but they seem to work really well as they are all independent workers and self-starters.

We’ve had a couple of people who’ve not been able to acclimate working in a start-up as they have been too corporate, but that will always happen when you are scaling an early-stage start-up. The transition has been very good overall, the simple thing for me is working out the delegation of roles and responsibilities. I’ve run teams at EY & Deloitte and have no issues delegating, but it’s very different when it’s your baby. It can be harder to delegate, and it can take a little bit more time. You can get stuck in the tiniest details of everything which, ultimately, stifles innovation and day-to-day operations.

Jake @ ADLIB: Transitioning from 4 – 20 over quite a short time, how was that experience? You’ve come from a background of larger companies so, as you know, it’s entirely different when it comes to building a team from scratch in a start-up and you can have challenges in that.

Jamie: The main challenge to start with was figuring out “who does what”. Even though people have job titles specific to a certain role, in a start-up you have to dip in and help in lots of different areas as well. For example, our Head of Plant R&D is also helping on the engineering side as that’s the stage that we are at. I also get involved in all aspects of the business because we have several different areas, we are not just a technology company. We are growing, so we have things like operations, sales, and marketing.

The main challenge has been figuring out where the dividing lines are and getting things done in a streamlined fashion where people knew exactly what they are supposed to be doing and what their expectations were.

Jake @ ADLIB: What’s the plan moving forward?

Jamie: We should have another 10 staff joining over the next 6 months to start. One thing I didn’t mention before is that we have a very experienced Exec Board, so we’ll likely add to that as well and we are fortunate that we have so many great people who want to get involved.

We’ll probably hire a couple more heads and depending on how quickly we grow our farms, we’ll need to hire staff under those as well, it can be up to 5 – 20 new people per site.

Jake @ ADLIB: If we come to Product, can you tell us about the product, and is it Q4 that you are planning on launching?

Jamie: Depends on what happens with COVID-19, but Q4 is the goal. We believe that we are launching one of the most sophisticated vertical farms in the world – from a number of different perspectives, including our approach to (full) automation, our lighting, and data-driven focus. We’ve visited a lot of vertical farms; we have a deep understanding of all of the technologies involved and we’ve spent quite some time focusing on building every component in-house, so we aren’t relying on any other companies.

There’s a lot of innovation in this vertical farming industry, but a lot of other people (including us in the past) use slight reinventions of the same tech, so stuff like rigid bench growing systems, very little focus on automation and heavy reliance on human labour onsite which makes scaling very difficult. Our system is effectively a fully-automated system for every single process. We’re not going to make any claims on output until it’s fully tested, but we have some novel ways that we’ve designed the system that effectively allows a site to be a 24/7 site.

From a nutrient delivery standpoint, it’s a flexi-system, so we believe that one of the most important things for any vertical farm is an ability to be flexible and respond to economics sharp turns, like the one that we’re in now, and different demands in the market. Our vertical farms can offer aeroponics, hydroponics, or NFT, even within the same bed so it is very flexible.

We’re halfway through building our own operating system which we’ve called “DIANA,” named after Wonder Woman! You have a lot of companies that say that they have control systems that can control relatively simple things like humidity, temperature, or the growing environment, but what we’ve developed is effectively an end-to-end solution that not only encompasses the CRM that engages with the customer base, sales, and marketing, but also incorporates all of the underlying science, R&D, and data. Our average site has between 1,000 to 10,000 sensors which interact with the systems as well. It also links to the finance and accounting side, so it really is an end-to-end solution.

I’m hesitant to use the term Machine Learning, but I see it more as an optimiser. It takes a while to get to the position where you can say you’ve created a system that truly incorporates Machine Learning algorithms, but that’s a future aspiration.

One primary other key area that we’re looking at, primarily as we are an urban facing business, is around space utilisation. In my PhD I focused on health utility and maximising utility for patients and a lot of that is useful in transitioning to farming and scarcity of land.

How do you deal with issues around scarcity in space? One of the key reasons that vertical farming models fall over is the cost of space, even if you improve margins or output by 10% in urban environments, it can mean the difference between a business succeeding or failing.

Jake @ ADLIB: I can imagine the cost of space is an issue in London, can you tell us about your sites?

Jamie: We have two sites in London, more specifically in Deptford, South London. We are about to complete our first licensing deal for a 2,500 square metre facility, also in London. I’m not allowed to tell you where yet! Then we’re also looking at building a 10,000 square metre facility in Central London, which we’re currently contracting for. In addition to this, we have a licensing pipeline of probably over 20 projects, so lots of work on the horizon!

Jake @ ADLIB: The team is based in London, and is that why you picked London as opposed to other areas around London, which would be cheaper?

Jamie: Not really! One of our key value propositions associated with our model is about proximity to customers. You can’t offer the same London service to your customers. Even half an hour from London means that the logistics, requirements and speed to respond to customer change is massive.

I’m a believer in hub models, where you might have one big site with several smaller sites that are near your consumer areas. We are looking at some sites outside of London, but no firm plans yet. London is one of the most popular cities in the world and has huge demand from so many sectors for vertical farming, so it makes sense that we nail this market first and not focus on anything else.

Jake @ ADLIB: It makes sense with your point around the scarcity of land as well, London is one of the worst cities worldwide for the scarcity of land…

Jamie: I think your right, alongside cities like Tokyo and New York.

Jake @ ADLIB: Coming to Potential, what’s the ultimate aim for Vertical Future?

Jamie: On the most basic level, we want people to be eating our food! Ultimately, we want people to make people healthier. Unfortunately for us, health improvement is one of the most difficult things to prove because it is very difficult to make claims like “eat our product because it makes you healthier” or “customer X has been eating our product for 5 years and has Z results” but what we can do is provide the market with alternatives to what currently exists, in a more sustainable way, with better nutritional characteristics and less waste. That for me is a healthier alternative to what already exists.

That’s our goal and we want to help as many people as we can!

Jake @ ADLIB: Finally speaking of investment, you got £5 million in funding at the back end of 2019, recently £1 million, and you’re looking to do a big Series A in the future – can you tell us about that experience and your investors?

Jamie: We started fundraising last summer and we closed that round in 6 – 8 weeks.We were really lucky with one of the first investors that we spoke to. We spoke to a few and we had a number that we had to turn down.

We met our dream investor in many respects who shared a lot of our values. They aren’t a passive investor who is sat back waiting for a return and they really believe in what we are doing. Before they invested, they did so much research that they were actually growing their own reeds in their office! I think the stars were aligned in that one and we really agreed on so much stuff.

The fundraising process, for me, wasn’t too difficult as I understood what investors needed to see. I actually quite enjoyed the investment process to be honest!

Jake @ ADLIB: 6 – 8 weeks is very short compared to the experiences of many other founders!

Jamie: It was very short, and I was even surprised myself as we had done it during the summer when most people are away. The longest thing in the process was waiting on clearance from HMRC, so it could have been even shorter!

We are really excited about our upcoming Series A that will allow us to fund some bigger projects, to build out the team more and to improve our R&D capabilities.

Thanks, Jamie, for your time!