Green.org sat down with Francis Pellegrino, the CEO of Advanced Growing Resources, to learn how they help farmers grow more sustainably using optical sensing technology.
Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
My commitment to sustainability began over a decade ago and, like most entrepreneurs, it all started in my garage. I come from a family of amateur horticulturalists, but harsh New England winters forced us to bring our plants indoors during the winter. Keeping them alive against the odds of artificial lighting and crop afflictions sparked many years of home tinkering that eventually grew into my startup Advanced Growing Resources. AGR® helps farmers grow more sustainably by facilitating the targeted application of pesticides and fertilizers with novel optical sensing technology. This saves growers money and produces a healthier organic product for consumers while reducing ecosystem destabilization, field depletion and carbon generation stemming from chemigation. You can learn about what I do on LinkedIn, in addition to AGR’s® CTO Andrew Thankson, and current full-time COO Robert Pellegrino. Please feel free to subscribe to our mailing list to stay in the know for next-generation sensing solutions.
What would you do with $1 Billion dollars?
My ultimate mission is to create technologies people love that can ultimately scale into solutions for the world’s toughest problems. This cannot be accomplished in isolation, and no amount of capital will change the role I have as a servant of my teams. Compassion lies at the core of sound leadership and allows you to run smarter, even when it is tempting to simply run faster if given the proper resources. One of my wisest mentors, Richard Handler, once wrote, “The more senior you become, the more people you work for”. This holds true for anyone – CEO, investor or changemaker – who wants to leverage the power of other innovators to refine and amplify a common vision.
To change the world, however, you need to start much smaller than $1 Billion dollars. New ventures must dive deep into ideas that do not scale in order to learn enough about their customers to accomplish things that do. Small steps towards those first iterative ideas are a great way to start, and there is no better place than your own backyard. I am fortunate that my home base of Rochester, NY has remained America’s Optics Capital for over 150 years. Even if you are not familiar with the city, its products from Kodak, Bausch + Lomb and Xerox are iconic. I am dedicated to building both company and community in the spirit of their founders, especially since those establishments that once formed the foundation of Rochester have fallen on hard times. Sustaining American Dynamism requires a foray outside the safe harbors of San Francisco and Silicon Valley to establish lasting roots that remain principled around the facets of sustainability. I have recently begun efforts to onshore production and engineering to Rochester, which feeds into life-long plans that will drive the future of optics, nanotechnology and precision manufacturing towards sustainable applications that serve billions.
Why do you think sustainability is such an important topic today?
It is a stark yet simple fact that humanity will not be able to feed itself without focusing critical efforts on sustainability. To support a growing population of 10 billion in 2050, agricultural production will need to increase by 70% over the next 30 years (UN FAO). With dwindling farmland and an aging workforce, increasing efficiency is the only feasible route to accomplish this. The most impactful solutions are also the most sustainable, combining a reduction in consumption with preservation of the land’s ability to produce.
AGR’s® solutions accomplish this dual objective by limiting unnecessary use of pesticides and fertilizers. Fewer resources are used while field depletion and the impact of farms on surrounding symbiotic ecosystems is mitigated. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced from both equipment operation and the breakdown of unused fertilizer in the soil. Future applications of AGR’s® optical scanners include the reduction of food waste by optimizing harvest schedule and even validating carbon content returned to natural sources. AGR® is fundamentally a quality control company, and reducing chemigation is simply square one. No matter the application, it is important to understand that growers are business owners. We all want to take steps towards sustainability but, with the responsibility of their own customers, employees and families, agricultural professionals are often forced to make tough economic decisions that overshadow commitment to the greater good. AGR® aims to change that by giving growers tools that enable them to save money and produce a more valuable organic product while doing the right thing.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
Agriculture, and the broader quality control market, need to become more efficient, automated and local to serve the growing needs of customers. A stream of real-time actionable data, made possible by novel sensing solutions, has the potential to increase production efficiency by an order of magnitude. The deployment of autonomous vehicles and robotics throughout the supply chain will increase capacity to match production while enabling workers to be deployed to the jobs in which they are needed most. However, automation will not likely be enough to solve the most critical logistical challenges. Expanding local production, starting with fresh food, will be the most robust way to combat supply chain disruptions, increase quality for the consumer and diversify output amongst small farmers in the interest of food security.
I am excited to lead the development of products that are a driving force behind market transformation, but backing must be sourced from unlikely stakeholders to realize this vision for the greater good. Unlike the fertile soil of enterprise software, most customers in agriculture do not have the resources or risk tolerance to support new ideas through development. Adjacent stakeholders, such as insurance providers and distributors, have the opportunity to take a more proactive role driving innovation in the markets they serve. Balancing government funding and venture capital with ownership by organizations that have an operational stake in investment outcomes is a missing piece that could better align the goals of users, investors and sustainability champions.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
1. Take care of your body by eating a responsible diet, starting with National Nutrition Month® in March. This is a great way to maximize the time you have to make a difference while supporting growers who are committed to sustainability. Change may begin at home, but visit a local farm to gain an understanding of what “organic” truly means – it might even spark a new idea.
2. Lead with compassion over empathy in whatever you do to remain biased towards action. Building a more sustainable world will require innovators from all walks of life with minds open to lending a hand. The Harvard Business Review has a valuable summary, but check out Richard Handler and his letters for a playbook. He is a phenomenal mentor, and I can personally attest to the truth behind each of these points regardless of your level of experience.
3. Support other innovators with your unique perspective. Mentorship is the best way you can accelerate our common vision for a sustainable future. Please reach out via AGR’s® website, or on LinkedIn to engage with me and the entrepreneurship programs I support.