Gardin - A VC backed start-up in the AgriTech world. Developing cutting edge technology to enable food producers to grow the most nutritious food optimally, sustainably and affordably.
We sit down for a coffee and a chat with Gardins’ Director of Operations and General Manager, Gary Spencer.
I’m Damiana Price, Head of Marketing at Gardin and as a relative newcomer to Gardin’s marketing team and the AgriTech space, I wanted to get to know the people who are passionate about creating a step-change in this industry.
While the Venture Capital investments and valuations tend to grab the headlines along with the Research Partner and Customer wins, it’s the people after all who make the company a success.
The real value then is when the collective knowledge, experience, expertise and culture come together to achieve the vision!.. And that is something that Gardin truly has in spades.
Gardin, you had me at Hello..
Today I sat down with Gary Spencer, Operations Director at Gardin for a long-overdue chat to figure out what makes Gardin and Gary, tick. When I say Operations Director, as most of you in the start-up world know, that’s not all he does.. Gary wears many hats.
- Gary, tell me a bit about your career and describe your role at Gardin. A brief description of what you do as a core member of this team.
My whole career has centred around product development across various industries, from aerospace to luxury goods high tech has been a recurring theme. I spent a lot of time at Nokia as the company grew to become the largest handset manufacturer in the world. Following the very valuable apprenticeship at Nokia I moved into the Augmented reality space for a number of years before being asked by our Founder and CEO Sumanta Talukdar to come and join him at Gardin.
Fundamentally, the role that I hold within Gardin is to lead programmes and operations and generally perform the role of General Manager. (I told you he wasn't just Operations Director, he’s the glue sticking us all together).
2. Gary, can you tell us how far along Gardin are with the build of this piece of revolutionary tech?
At the moment we are moving towards EVT 1.1 hardware, (first build, ready to trial). This is a very exciting phase for the company in such a short period of time given we secured our fundraise in November 2020.
Currently, I am working incredibly closely with the R&D teams on building out our supply chains as well as forging strong relationships with new customers to better understand the problems they are looking to solve and how this affects the technology within our products.
We are currently targeting mid-May for the first deployment of our products. These will be initial trial deployments with our strategic partners.
From there, we will move onto our second product iteration, which will be in Q3 of 2021.
For our second product iteration, we will have further developed our ID (industrial design), as well as our brand. Ultimately, there will be more units deployed in many partner locations in the field from July onwards.
3. How much interest have you had in Gardin’s technology?
There is a tremendous amount of interest in the technology that we’re developing. From Research Partners to customers who are excited to be involved in our initial trials.
We’re working very closely with some fantastic partners and Universities. Professor Tracey Lawson — Director of Plant Phenomics Research Facility at the University of Essex, Also Professor Derek Stewart — Director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at The James Hutton Institute.
The hire of our new plant scientist, Fabrizio Ticchiarelli — Lead Biologist, has given us more angles into key institutions such as Oxford University plus Reading University. They’re all very interested in the technology that Gardin is developing.
4. Gardin truly are working with the experts in their fields. Can you tell us more about the customers you are trialling with Gary?
No, but watch this space, they will be announced soon. I can say we have partnered with some extraordinary Vertical Farms aligned with our vision and tier-1 supermarkets.
5. Gary, what first attracted you to Gardin and what makes this start-up interesting?
That’s a very good question Damiana. I’ve worked across a lot of different industries, all developing high tech products.
This has included developing fuel management systems at Boeing to 10 years working at Nokia mobile phones during their domination of the Global market. Then came a series of startups, initially with Vertu, developing a luxury mobile phone. I’ve always found developing hardware for any company, incredibly interesting.
The attraction for me personally with Gardin is, A) it’s a sector that I have never worked in before and, B) developing a technology, fundamentally, that I have never been involved in before. The combination of those two elements is what got me interested. All of the stages in my career have been incredibly interesting. However, it’s not until you’re in a sector that you’ve never worked in before that you get an appreciation of just how important research and development is. This is especially true in the AgriTech world where we can contribute to making a real change to the global food system and climate change.
6. Sounds like it’s an extremely fulfilling company and sector to work in?
Everybody talks about climate change. Everybody talks about sustainability. Everybody talks about the world running out of topsoil to grow crops. People hear it, but understand relatively little about the options to make a fundamental change to those challenges. When you’re in the sector and you’re working with the types of individuals and partners that we’re working with, you begin to understand that you’ve got an opportunity to make a difference for generations to come. Both in terms of, generating improved food quality, more nutritious food, less wastage and all-around better crops. The fact this can be achieved in locations that simply don’t and are unable to grow produce today is doubly impressive and exciting.
With the evolution of vertical farms and commercial greenhouses, it’s a tremendous opportunity for the world to sit up and take note of just what a difference AgriTech can make to people’s lives going forward, it’s a phenomenally interesting sector.
7. There is a common goal within the team. They are definitely on board for those very reasons, to drive change. Making a step-change towards something meaningful, for us and our planet.
I’ve had many reactions along those same lines when talking to friends and colleagues in the past when they ask what industry am I now working in? Their ears prick up when you talk about what you’re doing. Yes, the tech is interesting but it’s about being involved in the ability to make a difference. And a real difference. It’s not until you’re in a sector such as this, that you really understand how much food we are throwing away, for logistical reasons, for climate reasons, for disease reasons. These are all the things that the Gardin journey is going to help to address. If we can make a very small difference, that very small difference now can make an incredibly big difference, as I mentioned earlier, in generations to come.
8. Gary, you mentioned previously, you’ve led operations for Vertu, the luxury smartphone manufacturer, where precision engineering was vital when selling that device. A device that sometimes retails well into six figures. You also mentioned, you have worked in deep tech and augmented reality where manufacturing tolerances are incredibly tight, down to the nanometer scale. How do you think your previous experiences have influenced your approach to operations in Gardin?
When you’re developing products, developing tech, whether you’re developing that hardware, and software for a product for Gardin or whether you’re developing, as you mentioned earlier, an incredibly sophisticated device in the filler luxury industry, the rules of engagement in terms of product development, and delivery are very similar.
For me, it always starts with, what problem are you trying to solve? As in the product you’re bringing to market, what purpose does it serve? Working at Vertu, heading up, programme management, developing, heading up quality, working with operations, with that type of product, you were serving a market that wanted a luxury mobile product to stand out from the crowd. We developed it very much on the basis of authenticity in the luxury industry.
But the fundamental rules of engagement, as I mentioned earlier, to developing the hardware product for Gardin are very, very similar.
It starts with, what does the customer actually want you to deliver? And what problem are you trying to solve for that customer?
Now we, at Gardin through our evolution from last year, talking to the leaders in the fields of vertical farming the professors at the universities,
we’re developing a technology that will solve a number of problems. The technology we bring to market will be at a viable price that can help the industry determine the health and quality of their crop. Fundamentally, the problem Gardin is solving is checking the health of the plant in real-time and making the appropriate adjustments. As a result, we are simply making those industries more succesful by delivering a technology that is commercially viable for them to implement into their facilities.
We have our programme plans and our milestones planned against our hardware deliverables. We’re packaging cameras, and lasers and electronics and hardware into an enclosure that actually isn’t very different in terms of discipline, to packaging, a mobile phone or packaging, an AR headset, it is very much a common set of rules.
9. Gary, would you say Gardin are pushing the boundaries and taking risks in their R&D approach to achieve their mission?
The beauty of our approach at Gardin is we’re not afraid of risk, you should never be afraid of risk. If you’re not pushing that envelope every day, you won’t deliver a product that, A) is innovative, and B) solves the problem for the customer. Fundamentally, whether you’re developing an aeroplane, in my opinion, or whether you’re developing the products that we’re developing, it’s a very similar process. The key to that process is having the right individuals heading up the disciplines that all contribute to bringing that product to market.
My role in operations is multifaceted at the moment. I’m looking after the programme management and general management of the company. But with the 30 years of experience I have in all sorts of disciplines, predominantly around research and development, leading teams, leading operations - I can guide that team, which is relatively young, but incredibly talented, through this journey. That’s what excites me. And the fact that we talked about our first products going out into our partner sites, in Q3 is a huge achievement for such a small team.
10. Within operations, what do you think are some of the new challenges that you’re experiencing for the first time with Gardin?
For me personally, it’s about the multiple numbers of installations that we’ve got to accommodate in the product. What I mean by that is, with the partners we’re working with, there are various different architectures within the vertical farms and within the glasshouse arena. We have got to develop a product that fundamentally can adjust, and the instal in all of those different locations can basically perform the same function. Because they’re all very different in terms of their makeup, underneath the enclosure that you see from the outside, and the way in which they grow.
Everybody looks at a vertical farm and imagines stacks of plants. Well, that’s true. But some of them are on rails, some of them are static, and they have sensors that are moving, others, the sensors are not moving, the sensors are static. It’s accommodating all of those different architectures that can support all of our customer's requirements. Secondly, it’s developing our technology for the greenhouse environment as well. And ultimately, for the vineyard, horticultural environments, and berry crops.
We’re getting a lot of interest from those two sectors we’ve talked about in detail, but also, true outdoor environments, and then it’s about developing this product, environmentally, with the high tech that we have inside, that can withstand the environments in which it’s going to be and that’s fundamentally going to be outside. These are not things that we can’t overcome.
When we were developing certain mobile phones many, many years ago, for Nokia, we started to talk about, IP 66 rated devices, devices that you can drop into a bath or a sink, and there’s very clear design guidelines about what you need to do to develop a product that is basically going to sit outside or in very high humidity or damp arena for 365 days a year, and make that a viable proposition and put a warranty on it and make that product last for five years without maintenance. It’s all understood how it can be done. We just have to make sure that we implement it correctly in the design.
11. Gardin, have had quite a bit of interest, bearing in mind, it’s an early-stage startup. It’s great to understand that you guys are actually listening to what the customers truly require, and incorporating that when building the technology.
It’s something I’ve learnt throughout. I mentioned earlier about Nokia being an amazing apprenticeship. Nakia fell into a trap, in my opinion, we were trying to develop so many different handsets for so many different markets. We weren’t actually listening towards the end of our reign, as the leading mobile phone manufacturer as to what the customer actually wanted? the customer didn’t want four different phones with, four different cameras and one megapixel or two megapixels. Each of those programmes is an enormous expense. I think Apple proved that one phone can be all things to all men. Nokia we’re producing so many different phones across so many different regions that the R&D and the effort it took to do that, we were taking our eye off the ball and saying, well, actually, if we really get the right product with the right user interface and the right camera, we may need two phones for multiple markets rather than 10 phones for two markets.
It’s so key to actually understand what the customer wants from your product, not what you think the customer wants. You’ve got to get them to tell you what that product is and then develop it accordingly.
Not verbatim because we’re adding functionality into the product all the time. Because we want our sensors to be multifunctional and perform multiple tasks, but there are absolute key unique selling points of that product. And we’re developing that because that is what our customers are telling us they need to solve. And that’s what we’ll do.
12. That will be an extremely successful trait for Gardin, the ability to listen and keep learning about those customer requirements.
Another aspect I wanted to talk about — Culture. It’s one of those areas where I wouldn’t say it makes or breaks a company, but it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. How would you describe the culture at Gardin currently? And going forward, what kind of culture are you and the core team working to build?
I think culture is an enormous word. And it’s difficult to really pinpoint the culture when there are six, seven people in the organisation. What I can say Damiana, is that all the people that I’m working with at Gardin have a very similar mindset in terms of, what we want to achieve from Gardin. The reasons we are at Gardin are very similar. The technology that we’re developing at Gardin, we’re all very much excited about. And fundamentally, we all work hard, very hard to bring this mission to life. But we also have a tremendous amount of fun doing it. And I think that is so important.
We’ve been working very closely as a core team now for a year, through probably the most disruptive time in, certainly my living memory. And to be able to go through a fundraise, develop a product, all working remotely, you’ve all got to have a common goal.
But the underlying word that I would use at this moment in time is we are having ‘fun’ doing it. And to have fun within the workplace, for me is absolutely, vitally important.
Everybody is totally 100% engaged in being successful, and delivering the product that we know this industry demands. But when it comes to the end of the week, we all have our meeting, we all have a good chat and a good joke. And I know that might sound like, you’re not working hard enough, you’re not doing this, but actually, we are.
There is a time where the pressure has to come off. It’s about working hard, and we are having great fun along the way. I’m sure whilst the culture grows, ‘fun’ will remain an important element. Going out as a team is also important and valuable to us. Our values are at the forefront of our minds when hiring people to ensure they are a good fit. Obviously, their background in terms of experience, their ability in a specific discipline, has got to be the best we can possibly find. But also, they’ve got to be of a similar mindset. We’re all working remotely, there’s a great deal of trust involved. Fundamentally, when we get together, you can tell each individual that joins this organisation has that similar mindset. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got to have fun working on this. Because otherwise, we will fail. We’re too small to all be stressed out all of the time and that’s not healthy.
13. You mention mission and the importance of everyone being on board working towards a common goal. Sounds like Gardin are a mission-driven company?
Yes, it is a mission-driven company, because I think when you consider the sector, and we had some very interesting conversations very early on when setting up Gardin. When Sumanta first approached me, I asked Sumanta what he knows about plants, and he said absolutely nothing, but they all die. And I don’t want that to happen anymore.
We’ve hired the most fantastic plant scientist, Fabrizio, he’s our eyes and ears and he is our interface into the academic world of plant science.
It’s an amazing achievement, in my opinion, how we’re actually pulling together very diverse individuals into an organisation that is going to achieve amazing things. And actually, none of our backgrounds apart from Fabrizio are actually in the world of AgriTech. I think it just goes to show that you can adapt your skillset and your mindset to work for a completely different sector in the role that is your expertise, providing you hire the necessary expertise in that sector, you can be successful. The best hardware engineer in the world is not going to come from the AgriTech sector. The best scientists in terms of the imaging and how you couple that with all the different technologies we’re coupling that with, that’s not somebody that has come from the AgriTech sector, but that’s somebody that understands what is required in order to make the measurements that, Gardin is developing, and the measurement equipment that we’re developing, and why that will succeed.
I haven’t worked in the AgriTech sector before but it’s been an amazing journey so far. We have partners, such as Tracy Lawson who was our expert plant scientist during our fundraising. Why? Because when we took the idea to her, in terms of what Gardin was trying to achieve, she got it immediately and realised how important that could be to this sector. There were no plant scientists in our team at that stage, we didn’t pretend to know it all, but we realised we needed to work with the best to achieve our mission. (We now have an expert lead Biologist who is ace, we may have mentioned him a few times in this interview — Fabrizio Tichiarelli)
14. It’s really refreshing when I hear this, as I would imagine there are quite a few companies out there who pretend to be everything, pretend to understand everything, and know everything. But Gardin are very open in making sure customers understand they are working with research partners, with experts in their field, to ensure this comes together. Having that open and honest approach is really key when it comes to dealing with customers.
I think it’s a very, very valuable lesson for a lot of people that you can be successful in a sector and you don’t necessarily have to have staff in that sector. You just have to engage with the right partners who have the right expertise, coupled with the expertise of the team we’re building at Gardin, and great things can happen.
15. Final question from me. How do you like to spend your spare time outside of work? And are there any lessons you carry over from that, back into your approach to the work you do at Gardin?
I spend all my spare time generally outside. I love to ski. My passions are twofold really, one of which is golf, the second one, which is angling in any pond, river or lake that I happen to stumble across. I love being in the outdoors. Is there a lesson I’ve learned from those two pursuits? Probably one of patience, because it’s required in both fishing and golf. I think as you progress through your career, certainly doing the role I’m doing at the moment in Gardin and previous roles in product development. Patience is key, you’re never going to solve every problem immediately because, and I’ve said to many teams that I’ve worked with, and lead over the years,
don’t be afraid each day, if there’s a reason why something can’t be done. Because actually, that’s what should be happening if you’re developing true research and development products, developing true innovation. If there wasn’t that time, virtually every day, where you think it can’t be done, then you are not pushing hard enough.
Having the experience to look back and the patience to work with these teams and know when to say, okay, we’ve pushed hard enough, we’ve researched hard enough, we’ve got to a certain point, and now we need to implement. If you just keep researching and you just keep developing, you’ll never get to that stage when you actually launch the product. It’s a very fine balance.
We are an experienced team. Myself, Samanta and others in the team have worked in high-tech startups. It’s knowing how hard to push, and it’s then knowing when to stop or when to implement. As I said earlier, the best word to describe this is patience. Because if you don’t have patience, you’re jumping to conclusions too quickly, you’re developing the wrong product or you’re choosing the wrong solution, etc. If you make the wrong decisions, it can be incredibly costly.