- Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison created an indoor farming company called Sensei Ag in 2018.
- The goal of Sensei Ag is to feed the world by making produce more nutrient-rich and accessible.
- Sensei Ag’s Tesla solar-powered greenhouses grow produce that’s distributed throughout Hawaii.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Picture this: You’re driving along the highway on the island of Lanai, Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island. All of a sudden, the verdant landscape gives way to futuristic greenhouses powered by an array of solar panels.
This is the first outpost of Larry Ellison’s 3-year-old indoor farming company, Sensei Ag.
Sensei Ag is an agriculture-tech firm bent on changing the way food is grown worldwide. The company’s mission is to feed the world by making produce more nutrient-rich and accessible and lowering the barrier to entry for vertical or greenhouse farming.
And while the company is young, it has the backing of Ellison, the tech titan whose net worth hovers around $95 billion and whose aggressive bet on the future of database-management turned Oracle into a $200 billion behemoth.
Ellison’s latest venture seems to have an equally ambitious outlook on the future.
“In the next three-to-five years, our goal is to feed the top three quintiles of the world with our products and employ the bottom two,” Sensei Ag CEO Sonia Lo told Insider. “And then in the next eight-to-10 years, it is to feed everybody.”
Here’s how Sensei Ag is working to making indoor farming mainstream and use its Hawaiian homebase as a “lab for the world.”
Ellison is the cofounder of cloud-computing firm Oracle. The 76-year-old billionaire, who announced last year that he moved to Lanai full time during the pandemic, is known for being something of an international playboy, as well as an outspoken advocate for health and wellness.
Ellison and late Apple CEO Steve Jobs were close friends for 25 years, and often spent time hiking together near their neighboring homes in Woodside, California, prior to Jobs’ death from pancreatic cancer in 2011. Ellison gave a eulogy at Jobs funeral.
Agus, 57, is a prominent physician who treats patients with advanced forms of cancer and leads the USC cancer institute funded by Ellison.
Agus and Ellison became close friends while Agus was treating Jobs’ cancer, according to Forbes.
Ellison and Agus founded Sensei in 2018, and recently split the company in two: A data-driven wellness spa called Sensei Retreats, and Sensei Ag.
Located at a Four Seasons resort known as Sensei Lanai, Sensei Retreats offers guests a customizable experience: They can set physical and mental goals for their stay, and the spa will track their sleep, nutrition, and blood flow.
Sensei’s overarching goal is to help people live longer and healthier lives by improving sleep, movement, and nutrition, the company says.
Sensei Ag’s primary focus is to bring healthy, affordable food to the masses by making indoor farming more accessible and more sustainable.
“Larry’s perspective and David’s perspective is that indoor growing is revolutionary, and that we can move the needle on feeding people globally and diminishing water use and land use,” Lo said.
This goal will come with significant costs and an ambitious technology rollout, she said, but cited the environmental benefits of moving farming indoors, particularly when it comes to water use: Indoor farming is shown to use significantly less water than outdoor farming. Greenhouses use roughly 10% the amount of water used in an open field, and vertical farms use even less — closer to 3%, Lo said.
In addition to focusing on sustainability, Sensei employs a team of plant scientists who are working on maximizing the nutrients in the crops Sensei grows.
What makes Sensei Ag different from other indoor farming companies, Lo said, is that it works as a franchise model.
For the average farmer, shifting to indoor production can be prohibitively expensive, which is what’s held back the indoor farming movement up to this point, Lo said.
Farmers who opt for traditional outdoor growing have “a whole infrastructure that supports you,” Lo said. That includes the ability to lease a tractor, lease land, and borrow other growers’ cold storage and packing infrastructure.
“Whereas if you want to be an indoor grower, you have to come up with several hundred thousand dollars, at a minimum, if not several tens of millions,” Lo said.
What Sensei Ag offers is the “whole franchise package.” That includes helping a farmer identify the right indoor growing form factor for their farm, whether that’s a glass greenhouse or an indoor farm; setting up a “cold chain,” or refrigerated supply chain; and locking in transportation and logistics.
There’s also a data component to what Sensei Ag is offering to farmers. Sensei tracks factors like crop selection and what type of light a grower users, then feed that information into a dataset to help inform future Sensei partners.
The produce grown by Sensei’s partners can carry the Sensei Farms branding, and Sensei will help with distribution.
Lo said that a benefit to being one of Sensei’s franchisees is the ability to distribute your produce at major US retailers.
“If you go to Walmart and you say, ‘I have a 200,000-square-foot greenhouse and I want to deal directly with you,’ Walmart will say, ‘Oh gosh, you know, we really can’t manage you as a vendor that’s that small,'” Lo said.
“Whereas if you go to Walmart and you say, ‘We’re Sensei, and we have 200 farms across the US,’ that’s a risk that Walmart is willing to take,” she said.
Not all types of crops are suited to growing indoors, and what’s typically grown today meets a three-pronged threshold: good nutrition, reliability, and affordability.
Lo pointed to tomatoes as a good example of food that is almost entirely grown indoors, because growers can offer good value to customers.
“That’s taken 15 years and it’s taken a lot of technology, a lot of reliability of growing, a lot of just processes and procedures that have come into play,” Lo said.
Lo predicted that the next crops to move primarily indoors will be leafy greens and strawberries. Strawberries, in particular, are becoming harder to grow outdoors due to a change in pesticide laws.
But there are downsides to indoor growing, particularly when it comes to energy use.
Indoor farms are often powered by coal, so they still have a carbon footprint.
And while there are vertical farms that are powered by solar energy, they require as many as 20 acres of solar panels, which means you’re not really using less land.
At Sensei’s farm on Lanai, there are six greenhouses spanning 120,000 square feet that are capable of producing over a million pounds of food per year, according to Forbes.
The greenhouses have sensors and cameras that track data about the farms, including water usage and airflow, and are powered by Tesla solar panels. (Ellison sits on Tesla’s board.)
Lo called Sensei’s farm on Lanai its “lab for the world.”
“Islands are incredibly tough,” she said, citing water, land, and labor constraints that make farming challenging on Lanai. But she said that the company has already met its initial goal of feeding the Hawaiian islands.
Sensei had its first harvest in August 2020, and by December, its produce was sold on every Hawaiian island. The food is packed on Lanai, then taken by barge to central Honolulu — from there, its distributed to the other islands, Lo said.
Food that’s grown at Sensei Farms is distributed at the Nobu restaurant located inside the Sensei resort nearby, with the aim of measuring the effect the food has on people who visit the Sensei Wellness program.
“Now our goal is to not just make food an export of Lanai, but also to take the learnings from Lanai — the business processes, the franchising model on the island, the water conservation, the water reuse — and really make it an intellectual product and then export that intellectual product,” she said.
She added: “If it works on an island in the middle of the Pacific, it will work anywhere.”