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Strong to the Finish: Beginning with Spinach, a Group of PD Alum Aim to Grow Crops More Sustainably

Lorenzo Hernandez ’12 wants to change the way we feed ourselves.

Working with his brother Nicolas Felipe Hernandez ’09 and fellow PD alums Yates Downing ’12 and Malika Rawal ’20, his company agroco aims to sustainably feed a growing global population through increased food production. They’re developing a self-sustaining modular system to grow crops more efficiently – starting with nutrient-dense spinach.

The group represents a strong and ongoing entrepreneurial tradition that sprouted its roots at Providence Day.

Hernandez, originally from Colombia, joined PD in seventh grade. “During that time I wouldn’t call myself mischievous, but I definitely didn’t always focus on academics,” Hernandez admits. Beyond his time on the PD soccer team from seventh grade through his senior year, “I’ve learned a lot from PD that I’ve taken with me throughout the years. Being able to learn and do anything, having that mentality, is definitely something I really enjoyed while I was there.”

After attending PD, Hernandez went to Appalachian State and double majored in international business and economics with a minor in supply chain management. In those four years, he traveled at every opportunity, including two study abroad stints in Germany. From there, he began a career in third-party logistics where “everything in the world that moves was right on my computer screen.”

The urge to live internationally struck again, so Hernandez moved to Asia and worked at universities throughout eastern China as a teaching assistant before moving back to Colombia. 

His first entrepreneurial inspiration stemmed from his time in both countries as he pondered how to create water filters that would allow the population to safely drink from the tap instead of relying on bottled water. That particular idea hasn’t yet come to fruition, but his entrepreneurial spark has stayed active. 

An opportunity with German international discount retailer Lidl brought Hernandez back to the U.S. While a part of their expansion team on the international supply chain and logistics side, “I spent three years there really learning about the food industry,” he says. “What’s important to me now is that it’s a massive industry and very centralized, so at any moment a disruption could really impact how people feed themselves. It’s a problem.”

While Hernandez was advancing in the company, he didn’t feel he could make the impact he wanted at a large conglomerate where things were slow to change. Two years ago, he decided to pursue a master’s degree at Northwestern University in engineering with a focus on corporate sustainability and energy. 

“I wanted to make an impact so I focused on the food sector. Coming from the food industry and seeing how centralized it was, I didn’t see how we could sustainably feed a growing population,” he says.

“In 20 years we’ll have 9 billion people and that’s growing the same amount of food we’ve done over the past years, so how do we do that? Then you take climate issues where 25 percent of the land is already degraded and 11 percent of the population is already adversely affected by climate change, with two-thirds of the global population expected to be in water insecure regions by 2025, and we are only going to demand and consume more.”

Through his research at Northwestern, Hernandez learned about controlled environment agriculture through indoor, vertical farming. “Per square foot, we can grow three, four, or even five times more depending on how we stack it,” he explains. “We use 90 percent less water, less land, and we’re growing more food. That’s where I started agroco.” 

The university provided resources for Hernandez and he competed in VentureCat, a Northwestern-specific competition for startups. That win resulted in the first investment 
of money into the company and subsequent competitions continued to raise awareness among other investment groups. 

Agroco is an agronomic solutions company with a goal of sustainably increasing global food production by growing more food with less land. The self-sustaining modular system works in a controlled environment as a vertical farming unit that can be shipped easily and runs on renewable energies. These units can be shipped anywhere in the world and grow food for that community so they don’t have to depend upon an outside, centralized source anymore. 

It was during his time at Northwestern that Hernandez reconnected with Downing, his PD classmate and friend. Downing studied mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and NC State and then moved into industrial design which offers more room for creativity and hands-on work. While completing graduate work at Arizona State University, Downing leads design and engineering for agroco along with an expanded team.

One of agroco’s first projects is with a rural school in Colombia. Hernandez and his family are from Bogota, Colombia where 46 percent of the country is below the poverty line and can’t afford food. 

“We started thinking about how to increase the nutrition level for that community and the agronomic science behind what we’re trying to do is multi-faceted,” he says. “We’re producing more food and it’s also more nutritious food where people didn’t have access before.” 

The goal is to create a pilot program where the community keeps what is produced, and as a nutritionally dense plant filled with vitamin A, spinach is the first product.

The units are designed to work equally well in urban environments. Using Charlotte as an example, “You’ll spend $20 million on land, or you can buy a simpler system for that amount where you have 500 of our units dispersed throughout the city and you can give them to local communities,” he says. “It’s thinking about it in a different way.” The next planned test unit is in the city of Chicago where Hernandez has worked with the Chicago Parks and Rec department.

Competitors to agroco offer systems that are all around 40 square feet, but Hernandez believes the optimal size is smaller. “I want to show that we can still build that 40-foot unit in a competitive sense, but we can do the same thing better. I can have a 10-foot system and fit four units in one shipping container which can each grow around 6,000 plants on a monthly basis in different life stages,” he says. 

Agroco’s price point is 60 percent cheaper than competitors because they use selective materials and have a renewable energy source to limit operational costs. While wind power may become a viable solution in the future in certain areas, for now, that energy source is solar power which allows a more dynamic and modular way to ship out units.

The walls of each unit are made of 10-millimeter thick plastic that is cheaper and lighter than glass. The frame uses a lightweight and durable metal frame, allowing for drilling and building the outer shell quickly. 

“The inside is where the complexity of urban farming lies,” Hernandez says. “If you think about a fish tank, it’s a similar thing. You are trying to recreate a biological ecosystem in a tank but you’re doing it for a plant. The plant receives nutrients through the soil, and we are trying to replicate that through the water solution.”

This system produces new leafy greens every three to four weeks using fertilizers in a controlled way. “We have the right balance with the fertilizer, so it’s more optimally grown with less residue going into our streams and causing fewer biological effects going into our bodies from those streams.” No soil is required, only the nutrient formula.

For those customers lacking a green thumb, “One of the main things we are doing is incorporating software that does it all for you,” Hernandez says. “It measures your nutrient levels and shows stages of growth. You are the manager of the plants so you can enjoy them.” 

Ultimately, Hernandez hopes to see agroco units all over the world providing sustainable food access. The current priority is raising capital because “We are going to need engineers and people on the ground helping people have this in their home,” he says. “You can grow it for your house and neighborhood, and no soil is required, just nutrient formula. I want to give that access to other people to grow and sell and I can just provide the technology to help.”

Hernandez is excited to welcome Rawal ’20 from Duke as one of agroco’s new business analysts. This connection was made through PDNetWORK which engages constituencies of the Providence Day community to provide internship and mentorship opportunities for alumni. Rawal will join Downing, whom Hernandez credits for his work and his friendship.

“It just shows how amazing the PD community is,” says Downing. “I would have never thought when I graduated from PD ten years ago that I would be working on this project with Lorenzo. You never know what the future is going to hold and even him finding Malika, it’s cool how it all came together because we all went to PD.” 

“I come from a country with a huge divide and I’m fortunate because I went to Providence Day. I have an academic advantage and I want to pay it back,” he says. 

Hernandez would like to connect with anyone interested in learning more, especially young engineers interested in joining the cause. 
“Anytime I do a pitch or talk to people, I want to first teach you what the problem is,” he says. “How do we feed the world? If you have questions, I’d love to talk.” 

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