Tobias Peggs is an entrepreneur and the CEO of Square Roots, an “urban farming accelerator” launched last summer in a converted Brooklyn factory. Along with Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla titan Elon Musk), Peggs co-founded Square Roots to support “real food” entrepreneurs as they produce nutritious and GMO-free greens using modular, indoor, state-of-the-art urban farms.
Below, Peggs explains why he believes urban farming today today is an opportunity on the scale of the internet 20 years ago.
As an entrepreneur, why did you make the move into urban farming?
I came over to the US from my native UK in 2003. I have a PhD in AI and have always worked in tech. Through tech, I first met Kimbal Musk. I joined him in 2006, so I’ve known him for over a decade now, and all through that time he’s been working on a mission to “bring real food to everyone.” He had a restaurant called The Kitchen (in Boulder, Colorado) that sourced food from local farmers and made farm-to-table dining accessible in terms of menu and price point.
In 2009, while we were both working at OneRiot, he had a skiing accident and broke his neck. Realizing life can be short, he decided then and there to focus on this idea of bringing real food to everyone. So he left OneRiot to focus on The Kitchen, which is now a family of restaurants across Chicago, Boulder, Denver, Memphis and other cities.
After Kimbal’s ski accident, I became CEO of OneRiot, which was acquired by Walmart in 2011. I ended up at Walmart running mobile commerce for international markets. I learned a lot about the industrial food system there—working with huge data sets of the groceries people were buying across the globe, and researching where those foods were being grown. I began to visualize food being shipped across the world, thousands of miles before consumers bought it. That is industrial food.
I left Walmart a year later and became CEO of an NYC photo editing software startup called Aviary. But I couldn’t get this map of the industrial food system out of my head. When Aviary was acquired by Adobe in 2014, I re-joined Kimbal at The Kitchen and we started developing the idea for Square Roots.
What we saw was that millions of people, especially those in our biggest cities, were at the mercy of industrial food. This is high-calorie, low-nutrient food, shipped in from thousands of miles away. It leaves people disconnected from their food and the people who grow it. And the results are awful—from childhood obesity to adult diabetes, to a total loss of community around food. (Not to mention environmental factors like chemical fertilizers and greenhouse gases).
What we also saw was these people were losing trust in the industrial food system and wanted what we call “real food.” This is food you can trust to nourish your body, the planet, the farmer and the community. Essentially, this is local food—where you know your farmer.
The industrial food system is not going to solve this problem. Instead, this presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs—those who understand urban agriculture, community, and the power of real, local food.
So we set up Square Roots as a platform to empower the next generation to become entrepreneurial leaders in this real food revolution. With Square Roots we can work alongside them to tackle this internet-sized opportunity.