Featured Profiles

Driving The AgriTech Revolution

Stuart Oda is the Founder of Alesca Life, an AgriTech company specializing in farm management software to make localized food production more data-driven and facilitate building of  indoor vertical farms. Alesca Life was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer as a leader in hyper-local farming and controlled environment agriculture and has been selected for prestigious global startup programs, including Stanford StartX, Unreasonable Impact, Dubai Future Accelerators and Thrive Agtech.


Stuart Oda is a second-generation Japanese-American; he was born in Colorado and moved to Southern California when he was pretty young. At 12, he moved to Singapore for his high school and middle-school education. Oda later returned to the U.S. to study Political Science at UCLA, with the intent to become a lawyer and a goal to work at the State Department. Upon graduation, he applied to several places and only received a call back from Merrill Lynch Tokyo. Oda accepted the investment banking position and shifted base to Japan.


His five-year stint at Merrill Lynch taught Oda how finance could be used as a weapon for good in the world’s emerging urban markets. He said, “I did a fundraising project for a BioTechnology Company called Amgen and what was exciting was that I found out you could indirectly impact the lives of individuals that you would never meet by helping a company like Amgen raise money to develop drugs that would impact the lives of cancer patients or people with diabetes. So it was really exciting for me to be in an industry that could indirectly impact the lives of so many.” This opportunity to create an impact greatly captivated Oda. His new perspective later guided him on his journey when he launched his project.


He was then offered the position of Corporate Development Senior Advisor in Dell in China in 2011. While he was in China, he noticed a shift from rural to urban economies. The projections revealed that China’s demographics have up to 250 million people gradually shifting from rural farms to urban city dwellers for a better quality of life. However, this change would later cause upheaval for future global food production. This bleak prediction greatly distressed Oda and inspired him to start his own company to avert this inevitable food crisis.


The emphasis on solving the problem of food deserts has caused scientists to have experimented with varied options in urban areas. One of the most efficient methods used includes vertical farming that uses indoor aeroponic and hydroponic methods to grow sustainable food in compact spaces. Hundreds of plants are vertically stacked on racks to maximize space usage. This concept caught Oda’s attention, and he settled on this approach with the intention to perfect the process.


With Oda’s IT background, he began studying agritech with the assistance of technology. In his TedTalk, he says, “LEDs provide the light, and mineral nutrients are added to water instead of soil. Internet-linked devices monitor humidity, acidity levels and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, allowing such variables to be adjusted to increase yields.”


With his plan in order, Oda founded his company, Alesca Life, in Beijing, China, in 2013. Oda and his team began working on the unsolved problems in the field of Agritech. The cost of production was too high, and vertical farming is labour and energy-intensive.


To combat these woes, Oda and his team studied solutions adopted around the world like smart water usage in Israel, fertilizer efficiency in the Netherlands and tech developments in South Korea. They combined all these solutions and developed proprietary technology in-house; they succeeded in developing their core product: a container farm housing thousands of plants that anyone can tend.


The Alesca Life container farm houses around 3,000 plants while using less water than most people probably consume in their showers. Oda’s advanced LED lighting has also been created to reduce energy usage significantly, and the indoor environment cancels out any need for pesticides. The final is a high-nutrient food that can sustain thousands of people living in urban food deserts.


“It’s no longer impossible to grow food where people work and live”, says Stuart Oda, referring to the amount of unused urban infrastructure available, including things such as old shipping containers. “Our system allows us to automate all of the major points of human error that could lead to a loss of crop,” Oda added.


Talking about urban farms, he says, “this is really exciting for me personally, indoor vertical farming can actually be integrated seamlessly into the cityscape to help repurpose idle, underutilized and unused urban infrastructure. In fact, this is already happening today. Ride-sharing services have taken hundreds of thousands of cars off the road and they have significantly reduced the need for parking.”


Alesca Life’s new product soon went viral and was also supported by many investors. Oda received an invitation to become a TED Speaker and a fellow at Unreasonable Companies, a group that offers mentorship to upcoming entrepreneurs tackling the seemingly unsolvable problems of the future.


“At the beginning of the pandemic, accessing masks and ventilators was a challenge. As coronavirus continues to spread, accessing some of the most basic food items may become a challenge,” Oda said. “Governments are beginning to realize that investing in technology to enable local food production and building up resilience and capacity now is becoming more important as the frequency of disasters continues to increase.”


Alesca Life has launched projects in partnership with clients in Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia and UAE, with the majority of its customers in China being high-end hotels. The company’s next step is to expand its production volume and variety and start working with larger supermarkets and restaurants with the ultimate goal of making fresh vegetables affordable to everyone.


In conclusion, he says, “I still have trouble fully articulating how and why I decided to work, and continue to work, in the agricultural industry. But a couple of years ago, I found a rather unique answer hiding in plain sight. You see, I read an article about how your name, particularly your last name, can have a strong influence on everything from your personality to your professional career. This is my Japanese last name: Oda. And the characters translate literally into ‘small farm.'”