From the founder of Aptera, tiny (and stackable) ultra-efficient organic farms

Steve Fambro, the founder and former CEO of electric car startup Aptera, isn’t one to sugarcoat a story. He told me that shortly after he was fired from Aptera in late 2009, he was standing in the checkout line of a local natural food grocery store with a handful of organic produce, thinking about how expensive his purchases were — particularly for someone newly unemployed.

FamgroThat painful memory was the nugget for Fambro’s new venture, Famgro Farms, which he’s spent the last couple of years building, and which aims to grow organic produce more efficiently, more quickly, with no pesticides, and within urban areas. Famgro Farms makes farm units that are each about the size of a Prius, are stackable, and use cutting edge, custom tech to maximize growing conditions. The company also operates the farms and sells the produce — like sweet kale and microgreens — at retailers like Whole Foods.

Fambro seems to be obsessed with efficiency no matter what sector he’s hunkered down in. Aptera’s original electric vehicle design focused on the ultimate in auto efficiency and back in an interview I did with him in late 2007, he told me he was designing the car to have “zero drag.”

Port that extreme focus on efficiency over to farming and the startup’s farm pods are the natural result. The units use ultra-efficient LEDs to deliver the exact amount of light needed for the plants to hit a hypergrowth stage. “Every photon is expensive,” said Fambro, explaining all of the photons are captured in the controlled environment of the farm and none are lost.

The Famgro team actually spent two years designing and figuring out how to make the thin, wide, flat LEDs the company uses in its units. The LEDs had to produce the right light wavelengths to optimize the crops, but they had to be robust enough to work Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 1.04.28 PMunder moist growing conditions. In addition, Famgro had to figure out how to cool the lights in an efficient manner, which is a tricky problem for all LED developers.

While making custom tech can be more expensive than buying off-the-shelf parts, Fambro said the move builds the company’s intellectual property and value: Think Tesla rather than Fisker, he said. And because the company’s needs were so specific it was actually cheaper in the end to make the custom tech versus buying off the shelf parts, said Fambro.

The farm units’ hydroponics do the same thing as the lighting system does, but with water: enable the delivery of the exact amount needed for quick growth in a small space. There are also automation tools inside the units that harvest the crops in a few seconds, and replace the need for laborers to spend time farming the crops.

Famgro has 12 of these farm units built that are producing crops in Southern California. Fambro has ambitions to raise more funding and build more farms to bring his dream of these urban efficient farms to the rest of the world.

To be sure, it’s still early days for the company. Famgro sells the produce for about the same market price as the expensive organic goods that originally spurred Fambro to innovate around organics. And its easy to say being vertically integrated is the best strategy, but it’s hard for a startup to manage so many moving parts — make the tech, operate the tech, market the produce, build the brand. In addition, selling such tech to bigger farm companies would be a more low cost way to enter the market.