Indoor-Farming Startup Plots Expansion in Massachusetts, Seeks $10 million Investment

Jul 6, 2016, 2:02pm EDT

For a few weeks during the frigid winter of 2015, otherwise known to Bostonians as the infamous “Snowmageddon,” Sonia Lo stood at a supermarket handing out samples of leafy greens. Customers with snow-crusted boots and ski jackets marveled when Lo told them the lettuces had been harvested within the past few hours in the town of Millis in the MetroWest suburbs. Since then, Lo has seen increased demand for heirloom lettuce, arugula, spinach and herbs that can be grown without soil, indoors, at any time of year using the method of hydroponics. As the CEO of Millis-based FreshBox Farms, Lo is currently planning an expansion that will include increasing the amount of indoor growing space in Millis by 53 percent to 40,000 square feet by the end of the year.

Indoor-farming startup FreshBox Farms plots expansion in Massachusetts, seeks $10M investment – Boston FreshBox has also set its sights on expanding beyond Greater Boston, with the construction of a new, 140,000 square foot indoor “farm” in either Pennsylvania, New York or California by the end of the year. Backed by $7 million in funding from investors including Lo’s investment firm, London-based Chalsys LLP, FreshBox Farms is currently in the midst of raising a Series A investment with a $10 million target. Lo anticipates that the funding round will be closed by March 2017. The growing field of hydroponics has attracted a slew of FreshBox competitors including New Jersey’s AeroFarms and New York-based BrightFarms. Retailers are buying produce from burgeoning hydroponics startups like these because the yield is often more reliable than the produce harvested by farmers whose yield is dictated by the weather. “Reliability and yield have always been burdens of dirt-based farmers,” Lo said.”Indoor growing solves reliability.” Indoor growing could also solve issues related to cleanliness. In 2013, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that leafy greens are the leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. Vegetable production has gone offshore in recent years, which means that up to 13 people may have handled the food by the time it hits grocery store shelves, Lo said. At FreshBox, only one or two people touch the produce before the consumer gets their hands on it, she said.

FreshBox’s produce is grown in custom-made, hydroponic enclosures that resemble large containers, and the food sold at about 25 supermarkets and directdelivery companies in Greater Boston including Roche Bros., Just Add Cooking, Pantry and Volante Farms. Lo claims that FreshBox generates the highest amount of produce per square foot compared to its competition. And after spending years experimenting with its supply chain, manufacturing methods and business model, FreshBox has reduced its cost-per-unit, or indoor-growing container, from $380,000 to $55,000. That’s largely due to proprietary air-flow, lighting and manufacturing methods, Lo said. That means the company is able to sell produce at a cost of $7 per plant site, which Lo says is up to four times cheaper than competitors.

While Lo wouldn’t disclose revenue specifics, she said the Millis farm is on track to be profitable by the end of 2016. The company employs 16. Other Boston-area startups experimenting with hydroponics and aquaponics (growing food without water) include Somerville’s Grove Labs, which recently landed $1.8 million for an indoor vegetable garden that doesn’t require watering or weeding, and Boston-based Freight Farms, a startup that has repurposed standard shipping containers into hydroponic laboratories that can be installed anywhere.