Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Tisha Livingston
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
Our next innovation story comes from Tisha Livingston, the CEO of Infinite Acres. She supports healthy communities by scaling indoor food production. Our interview follows a couple journeys: her innovation journey and the journey food makes to our grocery stores. With the health of our communities and environment at stake, Tisha describes the widespread benefits of locally grown produce. She’s not afraid to share her ideas and encourages other innovators to do the same. So, perhaps grab a healthy snack and dig into our interview with Innovator of the Month, Tisha Livingston.
P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form or email us with their information.
Tisha Livingston’s Innovation Story
Tisha Livingston is the CEO of Infinite Acres, a global joint venture among the Dutch company Priva, a greenhouse technology company, an American indoor farming company, 80 Acres Farms and the British Ocado Group, U.K.’s largest online grocer. She works to scale indoor food production through vertical farming done in environmentally controlled, pesticide-free facilities and values the role of local food in enabling stronger and healthier communities.
UC: What is your field of speciality?
TL: It’s funny you should ask—at 80 Acres, a top global indoor farming company I also cofounded, we’re making a huge difference from a sustainability standpoint, and also with health and quality of life by creating great tasting food that’s really healthy for you. We’re able to cross a lot of different disciplines. We are indoor farmers. We’re growing the best-tasting, fresh, clean produce. We grow sustainably. We use 97 percent less water. We are growing produce that has no pesticides ever sprayed on them, and we’re able to offer it to all of our friends and neighbors within 24 to 48 hours from harvest because we’re right next to the grocery stores. This is important because of the nutrition degradation that happens to food when it’s transported all over the U.S. and imported from other countries. The normal length of time it takes to get produce to a grocery store is not good for shelf life, nutrition, or for flavor. Basically, we are giving better shelf life back to the consumer.
UC: I’ve had the honor of following 80 Acres’ story since the very beginning and I’ve actually toured your facility. Your work with sensors and indoor agriculture makes you leading innovators in this space. Could you tell us more about the tech side of what you do?
TL: We do bring “best of breed” technology from data collection sensors, but let me go back to some eighth grade science. When you think about a plant and what a plant needs to grow and photosynthesize, it needs light or energy. It needs water, nutrition, and CO2. We keep all of those things in perfect balance and provide the exact climate that a plant needs to thrive. Then we go above and beyond and push that plant to create the phytochemicals and nutrients that are super important for our metabolism, for our growth, and for our health. We’re actually creating the exact light recipe so that plants can flourish. We’re basically taking photosynthesis and figuring out how to optimize that process in a very natural, healthy, sustainable way.
UC: How did your personal journey to this kind of innovation begin?
TL: My background is in food and food manufacturing. I spent 20 years in the food industry making things like fried chicken nuggets and biscuits—you know, all the processed foods that are belly-fillers, but not necessarily things that are the most nutritious for you. My business partner, Mike, and I worked for Del Monte Foods. I was Chief Operating Officer of a division. Mike was the president CEO, and we worked with a lot of growers and farmers that were growing produce in a conventional way. We heard their struggles and challenges about raising crops, getting them to harvest, and then providing those crops to customers in a timely manner. It’s a constant struggle. They didn’t have enough light, enough heat units, enough water, or the soil didn’t have the right nutrients in it. There’s this constant balance and struggle to produce food. What we’re finding is that global warming and climate change is a real thing, and it’s really affecting growers. Some years, they have really good results. And then other years, crops can be completely wiped out. We just recognize that our food supply is very fragile and most of our food is coming from California or other faraway places. That’s fine, except for the fact that it creates a huge carbon footprint and takes a lot of time to deliver it. There’s more and more people becoming conscious of their health and what they put into their bodies. I mean, I’m one of them. I want to make sure that I’m not consuming carcinogens and pesticides. I want to make sure that what I’m providing my children is the most healthy food and fresh produce. That’s one of the best gifts parents can give their children: healthy food.
So, figuring out how to increase the supply of fresh healthy produce in stores here in Cincinnati was something that Mike and I really wanted to do. The innovation journey began when we started researching greenhouses because we thought, “Well, we could get local produce that we can control the supply chain. We’re closer to the marketplace, we’re closer to the people that are going to consume it, and that’s a good solution.” We came across the idea of indoor farming very early on. We got there because greenhouses still cannot control their environment fully. They control parts of their environment, but they can’t control the whole thing. We wanted to be able to control all of the variables and make sure that we’re getting the very most out of the plants and help to grow in the healthiest, most nutritious way.
UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
TL: My kids, and I think all of their friends, think that food comes from the grocery store and they don’t really know much beyond that. When you give them fresh produce, they have no idea that it’s growing in a field or it’s growing in a greenhouse. I’m finding that it’s not just my kids, but it’s the general population. People don’t really know the steps from seed all the way to the table, and how many steps it takes to get food to the table.
For example, when you plant a whole field of spinach, a very large percent of it is left in the field when it’s harvested. Then it gets processed. There’s just so many touches that by the time our produce gets to our grocery store, it’s beat up and a shell of its former self. What we’re doing is spending a lot of time with consumers talking about what it takes to grow good, healthy produce and let them taste what we’re growing. So, I think from a storytelling perspective, we’re telling the story of our current food supply chain. We’re talking about how many steps it normally takes to get food to the table and then comparing it to what we’re trying to do. We’ve removed a lot of the steps, like transportation, so that there’s more time for the produce to sit in your fridge or sit on a shelf and still be healthy nutritious. By telling the story of the current supply chain, we are reconnecting people back with their food.
UC: Can you share with us your view for the future at 80 Acres?
TL: We have some really exciting things going on. We’ve been working with a couple of partners, and we formed a joint venture called Infinite Acres, and our partners’ global tech companies. We have a horticulture company from the Netherlands with expertise in growing crops, airflow, water, and nutrition. Then we have a company in London called Ocado who understands the challenge of online grocery retailers. They’re the largest online grocery retailer in the world, and they have fabulous predictive analytics and automation. It’s really exciting that 80 Acres has the opportunity to partner with these great companies. Even though we’re just a small startup in Cincinnati, it allows us to scale and think about introducing our farms around the world. People all over the world are changing the way they eat. And with our partnerships, scale, technology, and the innovation we’ve developed over the past couple of years, we’re able to make change. You can spend billions of dollars in building infrastructures to deliver food from the farm to the cities, or you can figure out how to create an oasis within a city that can provide fresh local produce and eliminate the need for the miles. I guess you can tell I’m pretty excited about it, but there is just so much opportunity out there. It’s a big challenge, but what I’m finding is that communities all over the world are really in need of it. People everywhere deserve to reconnect with the sources of their food.
UC: With your innovation teams, what have been the keys to success?
TL: With our innovation team, committing to the “best idea wins” concept is key. It doesn’t matter who in the organization comes up with the idea or their credentials. For our team, the big thing is having that guiding light, that North Star–knowing where we want to go. It’s important for us all to know that it’s not easy, but that we’re all moving in the same direction. Sometimes it’s not the straight path that gets you where you need to go, but we have the confidence that as a team we’re going to get where we need to be. It’s like a beautiful symphony when it’s all working together. When everyone knows their roles and endures the handoffs, it’s just the most amazing thing to watch. I spend half my time in Europe and half my time here, and when I’m here and I’m watching the way all of our employees are working together–that’s what keeps me motivated.
UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?
TL: A lot of times with innovation, everyone thinks that they have this super-secret thing that they want to keep close to their chest. I think that with that way of thinking, you can lose out on getting the best idea and ultimately, the highest likelihood for success. Share ideas and allow the best idea to win. Be collaborative with a lot of people that have different perspectives on an idea. If you do this, it’ll not only speed up the process, but it can make your innovation stronger and better. That’s my one big thing:
Don’t be afraid to share your idea. Don’t be afraid to get other people involved. Keep getting feedback and iterating.
Also, don’t give up. You have to keep trying. Some days it feels like you’re pushing that rock uphill and you hope the rock doesn’t fall back down on you. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and no matter how hard it is, you know you can’t give up. On the other hand, you have to be self-aware enough that if what you’re doing is not working, you don’t get tied down by it. Don’t fall in love with your idea so much that you’re afraid to adjust.
Thanks for reading Tisha’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.