16th March 2023 (Just Entrepreneurs) – Jamie is also a graduate of the prestigious Leadership Enrichment and Development (LEAD) programme at the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds an Honorary Bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from Buckingham University and a Masters in Energy, Trade, and Finance from Cass Business School, London.
There’s always a lightbulb moment before the beginning of a new venture. What was that moment for you?
Mine wasn’t a lightbulb moment as such – it was a product of time, luck, some creativity, and circumstance, like many things in this world. I had recently lost both of my parents to cancer and felt disillusioned from the corporate world, where I had an excellent career, but not one that could fill the gap that I needed to be filled – and that of my wife and two infants at the time. A very good friend of mine happened to send me information on a shipping container vertical farming model in the US at a time when I was coming up with multiple ideas and I felt that the idea could be transformed and better implemented In London. Vertical Future actually was initially set up with more than one “vertical” beyond the vertical farming element before I chose to focus.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
People combined with trust. You can’t build a business on your own, no matter how hard you try, and you certainly can’t take credit for doing so. We’ve had some bad apples, some who just didn’t fit, and lots of great apples – but it’s always tough losing someone, irrespective of the circumstance. If I had to add one other big lesson which equates to people it’s procrastination. Clearing your emails and to do list every night works wonders and reduces the pressure on you and your team. I have always worked late, very irregular patterns, but my team have the benefit of waking up and having all my feedback. I should also say that this is a trait that should extend across the whole team; not only me… and I certainly don’t ask my team to work until 3am!
How did you conquer those moments of doubt that so often affect entrepreneurs or stop many with great ideas – what pushes you through?
I’d love to say it was through physical exercise, meditation and healthy eating, which is what I hear from most entrepreneurs, but what pushes me through is seeing my family every day, a good hug and compliment (if you’ve ever read “the 7 languages of Love” that is my main one) and looking into the future’s of my three children in the hope that I can build something that they can benefit from – as life is tough, and it’s going to get tougher for many.
What’s the most common problem your customers approach you with?
Understanding the many facets of the system and understanding what do to when things go wrong (which they do like in any manufacturing facility in the world, which is essentially what a vertical farm is). We already have an on-call maintenance team that is growing in number but as our geographical reach extends, demands will become greater – and it’s people who are both a blessing and a risk to a business in this kind of role due to the 24 hour nature of it.
What plans do you have for Vertical Future over the next two years?
Growth should be the obvious answer but is a given. For us, it’s not necessarily about the pace of growth. It’s about proving to our staff and shareholders that they have the right decision in joining us and investing in us, respectively. Without that level of trust, future funding, connections, and support are unlikely. Openness and frankness when things are going good (and bad) are likely to yield greater benefits in this area.
What’s the single most important decision that you made, that contributed to your business?
Switching from being a “grower” with our own vertical farm that sold into restaurants, homes, and small retailers on a 6-day per week working night shifts support by a five-man team – to transitioning to purely technology, building our own hardware and software. These are two completely different business models, and the transition was tough, but by no means the single most important decision that I made to date, supported by my team and Board.
Tell us about your journey into this market.
My journey into this market was a bit mixed really. I left school at 16, and spent five years in the U.S. Air Force, including years at the U.S. Air Force Academy, then when I came back to the UK I embarked on my educational journey, which started with a Bachelors and ended with an (almost PhD – one paper away) with a Masters in between.
My first job following the completion of my Masters in London was a job up in sunny North Wales focused on economic regeneration, chosen over investment banking at Canary Wharf in London. I think this was a great choice in hindsight as I was given far more responsibility in the role in Wales despite not working for a big “name.” From there, I went into consulting and spent years climbing the ladder, starting at Deloitte in Belgium, followed by EY in London and IMS Health in London. All the roles were pretty similar and during this period I got married, had two children, lost two parents, moved house seven times, and travelled a hell of a lot as my consulting jobs were predominantly in Life Sciences across EMEIA. The journey was full of pure happiness, sadness, and everything in between.
What are some ways in which you are breaking data and analytics to find opportunity / strengthen processes?
Our entire model at Vertical Future is predicated on the belief that data and crop science will shape the future of crop production on a global scale. There’s a lot of infrastructure investment that needs to happen and time that needs to pass before we see the benefits of the data that we are building and the advanced analytical frameworks we are deploying through “DIANA” (our SaaS programme), but we’re already seeing excellent results.
What was the journey like when you decided to raise funding for your startup? And what tips would you give to early-stage founders getting ready to take the same path?
The Series A was probably the most stressful but to be honest, the first raise (which was effectively a “friends and family” round) was probably the toughest to be honest as it was just me, my wife, and 2 other employees. I had no family to call upon, nor did Marie, and neither of us had financial networks that could support such a raise. Through a financial advisor we were one day introduced to several businessmen who ultimately took a huge bet on us.
Our first raise was only around £300,000 but we had very little track record and just an idea, small vertical farm, and a lot of belief in ourselves to show for it. We’d also put all our assets on the line to build our first farm and if the business would have gone under we would have literally lost everything as we had a debenture with the bank, so whilst incredibly stressful for us, it probably gave those early investors confidence. At the time, the business was valued at £1.5m and our last round in March 2022 (when we raised £23m on a post-valuation of £92m) showed that those investors’ instincts were right.
How do you believe the evolution of tech will impact your industry over the next 10 years?
This is a long-term industry, for sure. We need to act fast to tackle the issues we are facing as a human race, but the reality is that large-scale vertical farms are major infrastructure projects that take time, significant capital, commitment from (many) stakeholders, trust, and belief.
Today, there is and has been major investment that has gone into the sector but it has mostly been directed at the end objectives of vertical farming and not the technology. I now see us in a third wave of vertical farming where lessons hands have been burnt, and there is now more of an emphasis on technology as the driver for change. And by technology, I’m not only talking about robots – I’m talking about crop algorithms, gene editing technologies, smart logistics, and energy – these all form a critical part of the vertical farming ecosystem and are critical to its success.
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