Natalie Portman, Other Celebs, Invest in Vertical Farming Startup Bowery

$300M investment round will help the company expand its indoor farms across the U.S.

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman.

Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

Natalie Portman, an actor as well-known for her film roles as her dedication to causes ranging from the environment to animal welfare, has thrown her financial support behind a new investment round for Bowery Farming. The sustainable agriculture startup, the largest vertical farming firm in the U.S., secured $472 million from both individuals and investment groups to help expand its operations across the U.S. It is currently in more than 850 stores.

"At Bowery, we're reinventing a new supply chain that's simpler, safer, more sustainable and ultimately provides vibrantly flavorful produce unlike what's available today," Irving Fain, CEO and Founder of Bowery Farming, said in a press release. "This infusion of new capital from Fidelity, other new investors, and the additional support of our long-term investor partners is acknowledgement of the critical need for new solutions to our current agricultural system, and the enormous economic opportunity that comes with supporting our mission. 

Portman’s investment is the latest in a series of big moves by the vegan activist to help grow companies that provide healthy, sustainable, and animal-friendly products to millions around the globe. In July of 2020, she joined others such as Oprah Winfrey and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in investing in milk-alternative startup Oatly. In November, she teamed with music artist John Legend in backing MycoWorks, a company creating vegan leather from fungus, to help raise more than $45 million. 

“So now lots of people make fun of vegans, right? Lots of people make fun of anybody who cares about anything deeply, right?,” Portman said during a youth activism speech in 2019. “But I’m here to say, it is always a great thing to care…whether it’s environmental issues, animal rights, women’s rights, equality, never be afraid to show how much you care.”

Joining Portman in the latest investment round for Bowery, which has raised more than $465 million since its founding in 2014, were well-known plant-based eating advocates Lewis Hamilton and Chris Paul, as well as world-renowned chef and hunger advocate José Andrés and singer-songwriter Justin Timberlake. 

Growth of vertical farming reaches new heights

So why is everyone from celebrities to investment groups throwing money at Bowery? Simply put, the skepticism around vertical farming that stunted early growth has been replaced with blooming enthusiasm in the wake of its success.

In the last year, Bowery has gone from selling produce in under 100 retail locations across the U.S. to nearly 800. According to Fain, these include such giants as Whole Foods Market, Giant Food, Stop & Shop, Walmart, and Weis Markets.

“It’s definitely bigger than the pandemic,” Fain told The Spoon. “What you’re seeing is a food system that’s evolving and [people have a desire] to see transparency and traceability in the food system.”

Bowery presently has two vertical farming sites in New Jersey and Maryland, with a third slated to open in Bethlehem, PA later this year. Each industrial space features various greens and herbs (butter lettuce, cilantro, arugula, etc.) stacked vertically in trays and grown hydroponically using a state-of-the-art computer control system and LED lights. An average of 80,000 pounds of produce is generated each week using 95% less water than traditional farms and with zero pesticides or chemicals. And because these vertical farms can be built within cities, transport costs and their associated environmental impacts are drastically reduced. 

While the focus for vertical farming remains firmly planted on greens, Bowery is testing new crops like tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries. They are also making constant improvements to the artificial intelligence system that monitors the plants at all times. At any moment, the computer can make changes to improve the yield or alter the flavor of a particular crop. 

“We achieve a plant vision system and that vision system takes photos of our crops in real time and runs them through our machine learning algorithms,” Fain said in an interview with Tech at Bloomberg. “We know what’s happening with a crop right now and whether it’s healthy, but then also predict what we will see with this crop based on what we’ve seen in the past and what tweaks and changes we want to make.”

Yes, we know that sounds like some slice of a dystopian future, but vertical farming is quickly proving itself a necessary technology to help feed and sustain humanity. For Fain, he believes the ability to do all of this with fewer resources, chemicals, and independent changing climate conditions or unexpected global crises is something that should be celebrated and not feared. 

“I actually view it as this incredibly optimistic opportunity to say, ‘Wow, like, isn't it amazing that technology has taken us to a point where something that we've done in a certain way for hundreds and hundreds of years with iteration and optimization can really be rethought and re-imagined in totality because of human creativity and human ingenuity?", he told MyClimateJourney. “And I think that's actually exciting and that's something that we should be happy about and optimistic about. And that to me is really the message in what we're building at Bowery.”