Vertical Farming Startup Oishii Raises $50M to ‘Change the Way We Grow Food’

By combining time-honored Japanese growing techniques and AI-enabled robots, Oishii is the first company of its kind to “perfect the strawberry” in a vertical farming setting. Now, the startup wants to expand its reach and move into new types of produce.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on Mar. 11, 2021
Vertical Farming Startup Oishii Raises $50M to ‘Change the Way We Grow Food’
NJ-based Oishii raises $50M Series A
Photo: Oishii

Imagine a sea of strawberry plants. Bees are buzzing, a soft mist is falling, and there’s a sweet, heady scent perfuming the warm air.

This may sound like the makings of a bucolic farm in the countryside, but it’s actually a facility in Kearny, New Jersey, run by Oishii, a pioneer in the burgeoning vertical farming industry that wants to change the way we grow food forever. Now, with $50 million of fresh funding, the company is one step closer to doing just that. The round was led by SPARX Group’s Mirai Creation Fund II, a fund established by Toyota Motor Corporation, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and SPARX.

The vertical farming and foodtech industries in general have been getting a fair amount of attention from investors recently, with companies like San Francisco-based Plenty and Boston-based Root AI turning heads at major VC firms like SoftBank and First Round Capital. However, most of these operations stick to leafy greens because they are the easiest to grow.

This is what sets Oishii apart. The company has spent years honing the balance between nature and technology, focused solely on perfecting the strawberry, a notoriously difficult crop to grow in a vertical farming setting. For one, strawberries have a very long cultivation cycle; and, because they are flowering plants, they have to be pollinated by bees — a fickle insect that will only pollinate in very specific conditions that are tough to replicate in a lab.

Its fussy nature is exactly what attracted founder and CEO Hiroki Koga to the strawberry in the first place.

“Strawberries are the holy grail in vertical farming,” Koga told Built In. “If you can grow strawberries you can grow anything.”

By combining time-honored growing techniques from his native Japan with AI-enabled tech, Koga and his team have managed to replicate the elements of a “perfect day in Japan.” The conditions make the bees happy, which, in turn, make the strawberries grow. Essentially, it’s bees and robots working together to grow fruit that is “fresh, healthy and carbon neutral,” according to Koga.

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Oishii's signature product is its Omakase Berry, a Japanese strawberry
Photo: Oishii

Oishii’s specialty is its Omakase berry, a Japanese artisanal strawberry known for its unique sweetness and creamy texture. The startup introduced the berry commercially in 2018, marking the first time a company has done so at scale, and it quickly caught the attention of various Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants around New York City.

Folks can also order Omakase berries on Oishii’s website, but they are quite pricey — a box of three costs $15, a box of six goes for $29 and a box of eight is $50 — and sell out fast. They can be found at high-end NYC grocer Eli’s Market too, “if you’re lucky,” according to Koga. Apparently they’re a hot ticket item there as well.

Of course, this model is not sustainable long term. Not very many people are willing and able to pay $50 for a box of strawberries, nor does Koga want them to. Instead, he likens Oishii’s current state to where Tesla was in 2008 when it debuted its Roadster model. The car was expensive and not very practical, but it was unprecedented. It changed the electric car space forever. That’s what Koga hopes to do in the vertical farming arena.

“I think vertical farming will be instrumental in growing pesticide-free, sustainable food,” Koga said. “Oishii has created a paradigm shift that can change the way we grow food around the world.”

To get there, Koga says he wants to use this fresh funding to open more vertical farming labs in more cities both domestically and internationally. Oishii is also working on growing other strawberry varieties, as well as other types of produce including melons, peppers and tomatoes. Eventually, Koga says he would like to have his company’s products in “every supermarket and grocery store.”

“Oishii is the farm of the future,” SPARX Group President Shuhei Abe said in a statement provided to Built In, and he expects the techniques the company has honed to “quickly revolutionize agriculture as we know it.”

Oishii is also hiring at its headquarters in Kearny, with dozens of open tech positions available now.

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