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These kale farming robots in Pittsburgh don’t need soil or even much water

Aaron Aupperlee
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RoBotany's plants grow under special LED lights. The robotic, vertical farming company is building a large farm inside a former steel mill on the South Side.
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RoBotany's arugula and cilantro is for sale at the new Whole Foods in the South Hills. The robotic, vertical farming company is building a large farm inside a former steel mill on the South Side.
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RoBotany, an indoor, robotic, vertical farming company that started at Carnegie Mellon University, grows micro versions of popular greens and herbs.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Brac Webb, CIO, Danny Seim, COO, Austin Webb, CEO, Austin Lawrence CTO, of RoBotany, (l-r) an indoor, robotic, vertical farming company started at CMU sells their products at Whole Foods in Upper Saint Clair, Friday, June 30, 2017.

Robots could grow your next salad inside an old steel mill on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

And the four co-founders of the robotic, indoor, vertical farming startup RoBotany could next tackle growing the potatoes for the french fries to top it.

“We’re techies, but we have green thumbs,” said Austin Webb, one of the startup’s co-founders.

It’s hard to imagine a farm inside the former Republic Steel and later Follansbee Steel Corp. building on Bingham Street. During World War II, the plant produced steel for artillery guns and other military needs. The blueprints were still locked in a safe in a closet in the building when RoBotany moved in.

Graffiti from raves and DJ parties once held in the space still decorate the walls. There’s so much space, the RoBotany team can park their cars indoors.

But in this space, Webb and the rest of the RoBotany team — his brother Brac Webb; Austin Lawrence, who grew up on a blueberry farm in Southwest Michigan; and Daniel Seim, who has pictures of his family’s farm stand in Minnesota, taped to the wall above his computer — see a 20,000-square-foot farm with robots scaling racks up to 25 feet high. This farm could produce 2,000 pounds of food a day and could be replicated in warehouses across the country, putting fresh produce closer to the urban populations that need it and do it while reducing the environmental strain traditional farming puts on water and soil resources.

“It’s the first step in solving a lot of these issues that are already past the breaking point,” Austin Webb said.

RoBotany is a robotics, software and analytics company aiming to bundle its expertise to make indoor, vertical farming more efficient and economical.

Webb left a job as an investment banker in Washington to attend Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in hopes of founding a startup around food security issues. While in D.C., Webb volunteered at the Capital Area Food Bank and donated to food security causes.

At Tepper, he met Lawrence. The two Austins connected at an entrepreneurship event and bonded over vertical farming and how robots could make it better. Lawrence later left a prestigious Ph.D. program at Cornell to help found RoBotany. The pair teamed up with Seim, an electrical and computer engineer pursuing his MBA, and brought in Webb’s brother, a self-described nerd who taught himself to code at age 12 and turned into a software and high tech engineering whiz.

The team speaks the same language when it comes to why they formed RoBotany. The population is growing. Traditional farming degrades soil and pollutes water. Current vertical farming takes a lot work and doesn’t use labor and space efficiently.

Austin Webb said RoBotany seeks to solve all of those problems. His brother, Brac, said it must.

“This is probably one of the first problems humanity needs to solve,” Brac Webb said.

The company started in June 2016 with its first farm in a conference room at Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus startup accelerator in Oakland.

The first version of the farm was 50 square feet and produced about a pound of micro leafy greens or herbs a day. Once the farm was up and running, RoBotany supplied arugula and cilantro to the Whole Foods in the South Hills under the brand Pure Sky Farms. The team delivered its latest produce Friday.

“The company aligns well with our mission of providing high quality, locally grown produce and we are excited about the success of their vertical growing method for urban environments,” said Rachel Dean Wilson, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods.

In February, the company expanded, big time. The team leased 40,000 square feet of warehouse and office space from the M. Berger Land Co. on Bingham Street. Version two of the farm is taking shape in one corner of the warehouse. It will be 2,000 square feet and produce 40 pounds of food per day. Version three is in the works. The team hopes it will be 20,000 square feet and produce 2,000 pounds of food today.

“It does speak to a different form of agriculture,” Lawrence said.

In a RoBotany farm, robots move up and down high racks moving long, skinny trays of plants into different growing environments. The amount and color of LED lights can be controlled. So can the amount and make-up of the nutrient-rich mist sprayed directly onto the roots of the plants.

The plants — micro versions of leafy greens like kale, spinach and arugula and herbs like cilantro and basil — grow in a synthetic mesh rather than soil. The roots hang freely from the bottom of the trays.

Plants grow two to three times faster than outdoors, Austin Webb said. They use 95 percent less water. And they have the nutritional value and taste to rival any traditionally grown produce, he said.

The company has raised $750,000 to date and hopes to raise $10 million when it closes its first round of financing this summer to begin construction of the big farm. The team hopes to have it up and running by the winter.

Austin Webb anticipates hiring seven to 10 people to work the farm when the full version is running. Another four to 10 people will be needed to run the business end of the company and maintain the robots and software. The robots will do the dangerous work, moving around trays high in the air.

Eventually, RoBotany will expand its crops to include other fruits and vegetables.

“You can’t just feed the world on lettuce,” Austin Webb said.

This story has been updated to correctly reflect how the company was founded.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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