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Leading The Agritech Revolution

Mother Nature and high-tech combine forces to urbanize sustainable food for the masses.

When a former investment banker and IT geek does a career 180 uprooting himself from a comfortable lifestyle in Tokyo to live in squalor among China’s hutongs, one might cock their head and ask why. But only if you don’t know the back story of visionary Stuart Oda would you question his motives. This second-generation Japanese-American has dedicated his life and career to a cause quite far from his training. He’s helping to solve world hunger both now and in the future.

An International Childhood

Oda was born in Colorado, surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains. Growing up bilingual didn’t hurt his future one bit and came in handy while attending high school in Singapore. He returned to the U.S. to attend UCLA, where he studied political science, nurturing his initial intentions to become a lawyer and eventually work at the State Department. Upon graduation, he needed a job, and Merrill Lynch Tokyo was the only one to give him a call back in his job search. Oda solidified his status as a global citizen by taking the investment banking position in Japan.

Finance Powers the World

It was during his stint at Merrill Lynch that Oda learned how big finance could be a force for good in the world’s emerging markets, his field of specialty. Angel investors and start-up capitalists finance benevolent visions for improving humanity’s lot on planet Earth, and this was a cause dear to Oda’s heart. His new perspective stuck with him and became part of his knowledge repertoire, coming to fore years later as he launched his very own project. His next career move was to experience one of these emerging markets first hand by living in it.

Ni Hao, Beijing

Oda’s decision to immerse himself in China’s rapidly developing market became real, working for Dell in China. It was here he saw how China’s population was shifting and changing from mostly rural to urban. Projections on China’s demographics have up to 250 million people gradually moving from rural farms to become urban city dwellers, a change that will cause great upheaval in the production of food for a future global population of 9.5 billion. This stark prediction both bothered and inspired Oda to avert this inevitable food crisis.

Romanov Alexey, via Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0

The Challenge and the Possibilities

Scientists have been working to solve the problem of food deserts for decades, and in recent years, have experimented with many options for viability in urban areas. Vertical farming uses indoor hydroponic and aeroponic methods to grow sustainable foods. Thousands of plants are stacked vertically on racks to maximize space usage. Oda settled on this approach with the deliberate intent to perfect it so anyone anywhere could grow essential foods.

From High Tech to Agritech

his IT background as a base, Oda began studying agritech or farming with the assistance of technological advancements at one’s disposal. He discovered how LEDs could replace sunlight, water can replace plant soil, and land area can be replaced by stacking thousands of plants into what used to be an old shipping container. He theorized that shipping containers could be retrofitted mini-farms and placed in the middle of an urban food desert or wasted space. Abandoned buildings, underutilized urban spaces, and parking lots could become the farm markets for millions of city dwellers in need of nutritional security.

 

Setting Vision in Motion

With his concept and goal firmly in place, Oda founded Alesca Life in Beijing. He and his team began working on the unworkable problems that others in the field encountered. Vertical farming is energy and labor-intensive, and the costs of food production were still too high. Oda’s team solved these problems by studying solutions around the world like fertilizer efficiency in the Netherlands, smart water usage in Israel, and tech developments in South Korea. By combining all these solutions and developing proprietary technology in-house, they succeeded in developing their core product: a container farm housing thousands of plants that anyone can tend.

The Inspiring Results

The Alesca Life container farm houses 3,000 plants and uses so little water you probably use more during your daily shower. Oda’s advanced LED lighting also reduces energy use significantly, and the indoor environment negates any need for pesticides. The resulting crop is what Oda was aiming for, high-nutrient food to sustain thousands of people living in urban food deserts. The next step was to get the word out and obtain enough investment to send them out into the world.

The World’s First Virtual Reality Farm Tour

For his presentation to potential investors, Oda cleverly used a virtual reality headset and his trusty Samsung phone camera. He noted that every investor who saw his farm first hand would indeed invest. He needed to give “tours” to investors who could not be there in person. It worked like a charm, and the buzz surrounding Alesca Life’s ingenious new product went viral. Oda received an invitation to give TED Talks and become a fellow at Unreasonable Companies, a group offering mentorship to emerging entrepreneurs tackling the seemingly unsolvable problems of the future. Alesca Life now has working farms in many countries around the world.

 

Feeding Mars

Oda isn’t the kind of man who rests on laurels. His vision is continuous improvement of his product and resolving the still daunting issue of feeding 9.5 billion people. One thing he’d like to see is vertical container farming adapted for use on Mars. By solving the issue of growing food in extreme conditions, Oda knows we’d be able to utilize these solutions in the very agreeable environment of planet Earth right now. But until NASA gives him a call, he’ll continue R&D on his own.

Feeding the Child Within

When Oda traveled to India, he saw extreme poverty for the first time. A starving young boy was crying out, and it touched Oda deep in his soul. The work he is doing will hopefully feed every hungry Indian boy eventually. But until it does, Oda will continue to pursue his desire to build a better world. For more information visit alescalife.com.