Stuart Oda hates waiting.
While working at Dell examining corporate development in emerging markets, Oda noticed the challenges of getting fresh produce to people in food deserts in global metropolitan cities and emerging market countries like China and India. There was little-to-no infrastructure, no markets selling fresh produce and a huge amount of resources spent to transport what Oda essentially calls a “ball of water… with a little bit of nutrients and fiber in a perishable, damageable form” to these areas.
He also knew that global agricultural supply chain is a $20 trillion industry and finding ways to bring people closer to their food sources–a concept he calls “zero mile food”–could prove profitable and also better for the environment.
But then he thought about Bill Gates.
“The Gates Foundation slogan is ‘The Impatient Optimist,’” says Oda, speaking to Swell from his Beijing office. “They believe that tomorrow is going to be better than today, but they’re too impatient to wait for someone else to make it better. Individuals living in these food deserts are consumers, just like you and I. And we wanted to develop a unique solution that can help improve their lives and access to nutrition.”
That’s what Oda is doing with Alesca Life Technologies, the company he founded in 2013. Alesca converts old shipping containers and unused urban locations into hydroponic gardens that are controlled via an app that automates and monitors produce growth. The app monitors the farms and provides vegetables with light, water, and nutrients. Basically, it takes all the guesswork out of farming.
The app, known as Sprout, is one of four products developed by Alesca, including their modular container gardens (Alesca Container Farm), indoor garden cabinets (Alesca Fresh) and an IT platform for operational and supply-chain management. Alesca has so far deployed their technology in the fast-growing markets of China and the Middle East.
But getting to this point has been a challenge, from developing the automation technology to the construction of the first shipping container farm. “The first day of construction we had this massive fire,” Oda recalls. “The next day we had a flat tire, car accidents. While our fundamental challenges have changed over the past 5 years, we still face a lot of hurdles today.”
But what keeps Oda going is his belief in Alesca’s mission, cemented in a piece of advice he got shortly after leaving his investment banking job at Merrill Lynch to launch the tech startup:
“Starting a company is like starting a religion and you have to become a Bible salesman.”
“In every person I talk to, I try to communicate the vision and core values of our religion and why it’s important,” he says. “It’s the belief that what we’re doing is correct and the direction that we’re heading is the right one. When things are really difficult, this belief always propels our team in the right direction.”
“I feel incredibly fortunate that I am able to devote my youth and maybe the most productive years of my working life doing the thing that I care about most. While I would be happy to build and contribute to someone else's dream or vision in the future, at the moment I get to focus on the things that I believe in the most. This is the time and place for me, and I can’t think of another thing I’d rather be doing.”
Despite the bumps, Alesca has made its way into the hospitality market in China, with hotels and restaurants buying their products. And the company has recently expanded into the United Arab Emirates and Africa early next year. Oda admits he still has a way to go. (“We still need funding to grow the business and develop all of our exciting new products,” he says.) But he’s also optimistic about the rapid progress of both the agricultural technology industry and a broader market that’s beginning to realize what he saw five years ago.
Impatiently so, Oda adds.
“A future in which, even the most remote location, food production is more localized and data-driven? That’s a future that I want to be a part of,” he says.