On May 7, 2015, a group of Concord Academy students from the Advanced Environmental Science: Communities class stepped from the hot urban sun through a large warehouse door into a cavernous industrial space. The tall ceiling beams were worn from America’s industrial age, the floor was a freshly poured concrete, and the light was artificial, often in shades of purple and blue. The scene in front of them: One of America’s burgeoning agricultural landscapes.
The facility in Millis, Mass., is the headquarters of Pure Genius, a startup focusing on hyper-local hydroponic farming. Under the leadership of Sonia Lo ‘84, Pure Genius is growing rapidly, and in speaking with Lo and her team it’s easy to understand why: Pure Genius is innovating at the intersection of powerful changes in America’s economic, environmental, and social trends.
In producing hyperlocal hydroponic food, Pure Genius is growing leafy greens such as salads and basil in urban farms whose growing conditions — from water to nutrients, to light and growing cycle — are precisely calibrated to each species. This yields a number of different direct environmental benefits: Pure Genius’s crops significantly reduce the impact on water, land, and transportation, while they use no GMOs, no herbicides, and no pesticides. Consider, for instance, that Pure Genius uses as little as 1/2500th of the water that traditional agriculture does.
Sonia Lo ’84 (center, green scarf) with a group of Concord Academy students from the Advanced Environmental Science class
Consider also how rapidly growth occurs in such an optimized environment: The standard growing time is as little as 21 days. By comparison, field-grown lettuce takes 65 to 90 days. Given Pure Genius’s decentralized growing model, the greens end up on store shelves in as little as 12 hours after harvest. Judging from the students’ reactions, this extraordinary efficiency has not come at the cost of taste. The leaves are a deep green with a precisely calibrated amount of crunch — the perfect texture, the perfect bite.
“We spend much of the semester talking about systems, both economic and biological,” said Assistant Head and Academic Dean John Drew. “It was terrific that Pure Genius models profitability and environmental sustainability in concert. This visit brought together different threads of the course into one experience for the students, and in so doing brought the course to life.”
Lo’s career is not typical for an American farmer. She has worked as an investor, a director at Google, a chef, and an angel investor, to name only a few of her roles throughout her career. Standing in the warehouse in sneakers and a lab coat, she looked right at home in the role of redefining what local, healthy agriculture looks like in America.