The launch of Willo is such a grand, large leap from your previous trajectory in the world of tennis, how did you get to where you are now?
We came to the US in 2010 and 2011 to play tennis. We didn't arrive with any sort of large business ambitions, just to work as hard as we could and hope for the best. John did undergraduate work in mechanical physics and won the competition at Space X and the two of us kept coming back to this same question: how do we make the greatest impact on humanity in the shortest period of time? As we really started diving into this simple yet complex question we realized that the majority of noncommunicable diseases have inflammation at the base, and the majority of inflammation has poor diet at its base. When we understood that plants have the ability to solve this problem we realized that growing plants was the answer to our question. Willo came to be when we realized the importance of this.
We were never that interested in diet growing up; just as long as we had enough energy to play tennis we were fine. But around 20 we started thinking of food in a different way and began testing the waters of vegetarianism and then veganism and looking at other modalities as a means of health: exercise, meditation, supplements and sauna use. From the time we were young we were very aware and concerned with our mortality and recognized the importance of not wasting the time we had on earth. Living with our elders magnified this and has always been fundamental to who we are. We had a deep desire and commitment to creating something that was grand, large, important. We didn’t just want to get a job, we wanted to make an impact. Around Christmas in 2016 we were visiting our parents and got to talking about our futures. We were always throwing ideas around with each other but this idea of growing food indoors really stuck with us. At that point it was a completely manual process and the reason it hadn’t taken off was because it was so expensive: the set-up, technology, electricity, all of these factors had made it cost prohibitive. But we realized these expenses were dropping so we committed to moving forward on this idea of creating a platform that utilized John’s robotics degree and our passion for nutrition. Sam was still doing a bit of tennis coaching and one of his students was the guy who heads the digital cities program at Stanford. Sam mentioned the idea during a lesson and he liked it. He told us to move on it and get a pitch together. We did and got our first investment from the farmer’s investment club at Stanford and from there we just kept on pitching. There are other companies doing this, but we don’t believe they have the same ethos or goals that we do, and they certainly don’t have the same technology.
Do you see Willo as a political company? What is the mission behind it?
Willo is political in the sense that our vision is grand but we make an effort to be as apolitical as possible while still being mission oriented. We of course are cause driven, and even though we are vegan, we don’t try to convince people to be vegan. We have beliefs and we are very confident in them, but you wouldn’t know that our organization is founded by two vegan guys.
Will Willo broaden outside of nutrition?
It will. We see Willo fitting into an ecosystem of health that includes everything from bowel movements to sleep times and we want to prominently insert ourselves in that conversation. We’re very interested in health and longevity and there is a lot of research that’s been taking place over the last few decades that treats aging as a disease, not an inevitable process. We are really excited to see the mindset around the process of aging shift, and we believe that diet and nutrition are fundamental to this conversation. The grim reality is that the leading cause of death around the world is poor nutrition, and the underlying factor is food. We first became interested in diet through the lens of health and performance, but we now see the scope of health as being so much more dimensional.
Talk about vertical farming, why is it the foundation for what it is you’re creating?
We think it's a miracle that 7BB people actually eat daily with the outdoor farming model. We are not here to criticize this model that has fed us for so long, but outdoor farming has a huge number of inherent issues, one of them being that 75% of the topsoil in the US is gone. We realized quickly that outdoor farming wouldn’t allow us to achieve our vision. It also didn’t utilize our skillset so we looked indoors and saw enormous potential. Indoor vertical farming requires 95% less water, 99% less land use, zero pesticides and eliminates heavy metals. Just one of these value propositions is something you could launch a business on, let alone all. We figured out that the number one cost for growing food is labor, the number two cost is electricity and HVAC, and number three are the capital costs to get it started. If we could develop a system that reduced those three costs, we would have a system that grows the highest quality plant produce known to humankind in every major city on planet earth. We started with investment in 2017, and are now at a point where all the major technological questions have been answered positively and we are set to scale. We see Europe, USA, UAE and Australia as receptive markets and our offerings will continue to grow beyond what we currently offer. The end goal is that you will be able to have a “personalized farm” that grows exactly what you need, from the food you eat to topicals, to your own personalized biopharmaceuticals. Currently 60% of the world’s calories come from 5 or 6 crops. We don’t believe this is beneficial to humans or the environment but it is the common way that food is grown. With vertical farming you eliminate the need for pesticides, reduce the risk of exposure to bacteria and you have the ability to grow more with less resources.
Is Willo truly personalized?
That’s the direction it's going. Your phone has a crop list that is defined in the beginning, and that crop list will grow and grow. You click, they grow it, and then it’s delivered to your door.
How many people are helping with the farming?
In order to have the largest impact and for our vision to come to life, we need to eliminate as much labor as possible. Eventually the growers will be in a centralized location with automated harvesting and seeding and the goal is to get the farms to a place that they operate automatically. With our background in robotics the goal is to utilize this technology allowing us to grow the most superior ingredients and plants in quantities that have the ability to feed more people worldwide.
What is your goal with Willo, and what do you want to see for its growth?
We want our technology to be the platform for the future. We want Willo to be pushing the limits of human nutrition. We want to make this technology ubiquitous so as many people as possible can get access to what they need to live their best life. 821 million people right now do not have access to food, and our vision is to eliminate that number. We want to be a grand endeavor not for the sake of being grand, but for the magnitude of the solution we can offer.