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Interview with Sepehr Mousavi by PM in SET Learner Diana Dalkevych

Diana Dalkevych
PM in SET Learner

Making indoor farming a reality, an interview with Sepehr Mousavi, the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of SweGreen

Sepehr talks about his history in agriculture and how SweGreen is a sustainable trailblazer in the agriculture industry

Interview by PM in SET Leaner Diana Dalkevych

Imagine that you’ve decided to open a local grocery store that sells groceries for Mediterranean cuisine. You have a couple of restaurants nearby that will come daily to you to buy goods and a number of restaurants downtown that would gladly order in advance and pick up items they need at their own expense.

You may say, alright, this sounds like a business model, but where would I grow these goods? I don’t have a farm, nor do I have the land to set up one. And I’d answer, you don’t need to have it! You can just call some smart guys and say what you want to grow. Next step, they will come to you with some boxes, wires, and seeds, and set it up right there, in your newly rented store. And - here you go - you have a farm that yields the groceries that will be soon served in your favorite restaurants.

It may sound like a futuristic sort of talk. But, in fact, it’s not anything futuristic anymore. It’s already our reality. I spoke to Sepehr Mousavi, the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of SweGreen that “offers remotely-controlled and automated vertical farming units in a service model to retailers and grocery stores, this enables their clients to become urban farmers and to produces the market's most sustainable and high-quality vegetables in a fully integrated model with their host buildings”. Let’s see how SweGreen's solution makes indoor farming a reality.

Diana:

Thanks a lot for finding time in your schedule. I can imagine that it can be challenging these days. Let’s start with you talking to me a bit about what you do, where you do it, and whatever you feel like sharing for us to get started.

Sepehr:

You're very welcome, and thank you for reaching out. My name is Sepehr Mousavi. I'm one of the Co-founders of SweGreen. My title is the company's Chief Innovation Officer and Head of Research. So, mostly, I focus on innovation and research, or R and I, as you call it in, in our context. I have some engineering background and a background in business. I worked as a sustainability professional but I’m getting more and more toward innovation at the edge. SweGreen was founded back in 2019. And now, I'm one of the five Co-founders of the company with joint forces with different backgrounds and competencies.

Diana:

Thank you for providing context! I have a question to get a bit further. What made you join the sustainability field? As far as I know, you started from an agricultural background. How does this connect with sustainability for you?

Sepehr:

I had a little bit of a career crisis and was thinking about whether I should do something more meaningful with my life. And that was when I got involved with a CSR project in a big company and realized I didn't know enough to make sustainability economically viable. That gave me the idea of why not do something different that would enable you to make more money, rather than losing some whenever you do good. That's how I got more and more interested in working closely with the sustainability role, educating myself. I quit a very good job position back in 2010-11 and went back to school. 

Going back to my agricultural background, my family, on my father's side, were landowners. And I was always interested in this because there have been lots of people working for our family on these farms. And in my opinion, it was a very difficult job that they had. I always remember my grandfather talking about all these different elements and parameters that could have an impact on having a successful year. So I was always interested in how you could make agriculture easier, how you could use automation more, and how you could make it less impacted by climate-related issues. And that's how I ended up being more interested in that.

Diana:

That’s a very inspiring example of how one can connect the dots! Can you talk to me about how you see a sustainable approach incorporated into a business model so that one gets profits while doing good for the planet?

Sepehr:

I think the world of sustainability has changed. And especially when you're looking at using technology for good. There are different approaches toward sustainability. One kind of philosophy is that you don't grow and you don't develop. And the other one is that you look into sustainable growth which means that we can directly take away those materials that are not good, instead of waiting for their lifestyle to go out. And that's more or less what we are doing because our solution is about producing food in closed environment farms. It enables owners to control climate and provide plants with an optimal growth situation, which is the opposite of normal traditional farming. And it's way more advanced than the normal greenhouse industry, where you don't control everything.

Instead of a farmer selling it to a buyer organization, sending it to another buyer that will put it into a logistics center and then sell it and go through the same logistics cycle again, we sell it directly through the retail store to the end consumer. Our approach is integrating farming into already existing urban infrastructure and having a 100 % circular model that makes it more profitable compared to traditional greenhouse farming by controlling the environment and making the most out of the existing resources.

Diana:

That makes perfect sense to me! If I may ask, what is your average customer, then?

Sepehr:

The product that we are offering is a B2B2C. It's a business-to-business subscription model, which we call farming-as-a-service. A grocery store, a retail store, a supermarket, a restaurant, or a hotel chain subscribes to these units. They don't need to take the risk of investing in a greenhouse. Based on how much they usually sell, we design a solution that fits their needs. Such businesses are our first-hand customers. But then, the next customer is either somebody that goes to a restaurant and eats there, or it's the people who go and buy those leafy greens and spices and different types of lettuces and salads and cook them at home. 

Diana:

How do you feel about the state of Sweden's market of alternative farming?

Sepehr:

I have been working in the farming industry since 2013. And the first time that I heard about it was in 2011. It was nonexistent back then. But now, after all those years, it’s a boom right now. If you look at the current status of the food industry in general, you can see a lot of different holes and a lot of issues with things being not sustainable, not logical, not economically viable, and also quite vulnerable when it comes to the crash that we had when a pandemic hit us. So I think it’s quite important to focus on building more resilient systems. And that's why I think vertical farming is a part of the future of feeding this planet. It's not the only solution that we need though. There're also tons of other different solutions out there that we need to devote our attention to, such as alternative proteins, that can make our supply chains more sustainable and economically viable. 

Diana:

How about regulations? Talk to me about how they influence your work.

Sepehr:

There’s a mesosphere theory of changes which says that the innovation may arise either from the government deciding on what is good and providing investments or from the local initiatives pushing something all the way up until it reaches governmental layers. I guess in the case of vertical farming we can observe a bottom-up innovation with all the innovative companies that are pushing for the space and are reaching out for venture capital and building examples. But also the perception of people is quite important because ten years ago people weren't this open to consider that technology is capable of solving such issues for them. Now, people are getting more and more used to using technology for their own good. So this is pushing vertical farming space but probably governmental help would also come in hand, which is probably a matter of time.

Diana:

Yes, looking forward to that! Can you share a bit about the obstacles of the R&D stage that companies in the niche are facing? 

Sepehr:

It's a deep tech area. And the deep tech area means you need to do a lot of research and development before you could launch a product. You can talk about plant science as a center, but then you should talk about energy engineering and integration of different resources if you want to do that in a sustainable manner, otherwise, you're going to have very high costs. Also, you need to be able to define some sort of KPIs for your performances, which involves a certain degree of automation and robotics. All of that should be heavily researched in the first place in order to come up with recipes for the conditions in which plants can thrive. 

There are many different universities, institutions, and companies that are also doing their research, but the important thing is the viability of your business because one of the biggest issues that we have in the vertical farming space is that most of the companies that are out there, even the biggest, don't have a viable business model. So they don't make money. 

Diana:

What would you suggest to those who’re entering the field?

Sepehr:

I think before entering this space, you need to understand what kind of actor you are going to be. Are you going to be some sort of glorified farmer that is doing it close to the customers? And then you need to know what you can produce, where you can sell and whether you have a business case. Or, perhaps, you’re going to be a tech company that provides scalable solutions, which is a totally different story.

In the first case, you can subscribe to solutions like ours and build a business case around it, because you're going to get the same business case as a retailer. But if you want to build your own system, you need to make sure that you’re not reinventing a wheel and be very well digitally equipped to be able to gather and leverage a lot of data. 

Diana:

Can you share with me the vision of SweGreen and your part in it?

Sepehr:

Our vision is to be a global leader in offering in-store growing systems, which are productive, sustainable, high-tech, and high-quality by design. Those systems are quite complicated. But for users, they should be friendly and easy-to-use, and affordable. This is one of the biggest challenges in my role as I focus on research and innovation. So you should look at the vision for innovation in terms of the function, user experience, and affordability, and then you should come up with the research that can get you there and then provide input to other teams that will enable developing the product at the late stages. This is a big, yet very interesting, challenge. 

Diana:

Thank you a lot for this conversation, Sepehr! It's very interesting. I wish your product a lot of luck and a lot of luck for you personally!

Sepehr:

Good luck to you too!

At the moment, SweGreen is optimizing its in-store solutions so that they fit into pretty much any neighborhood supermarket in Sweden, which means more opportunities for retailers and more salad for consumers. 

Learn more about SweGreen: https://bit.ly/3FJAOZL

Connect with Diana on LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/3FjvWJm

Connect with Sepehr on LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/3YcR6Bz

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Diana Dalkevych
PM in SET Learner

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