Founders in Focus looks closely at the people behind startup growth. Founders that have spotted a unique perspective, created something individual or had the sheer determination to drive change when it’s easier to take another path.
We provide a platform to Founders and look to amplify their stories, detailing the individual journey as well as the aspirations for the future.
talent.ai shares and elevates these stories to create insight and inspire others who are on or considering similar journeys.
We spoke Regrow CEO Anastasia Volkova, PhD about the road from having “no green thumbs” to using her engineering knowledge to make impactful change happen.
For Volkova agriculture is primed to become sustainable and a powerful force for change to fight climate change, and is working to make it a reality.
Watch or read the full interview below
Farming – AgriTech
Durham, New Hampshire
TH: Welcome, Anastasia. It’s a huge privilege to speak to you as part of our Founders in Focus series today.
AV: Thank you so much for having me.
TH: The BBC recently named you to their list of the 100 most influential and change-oriented women on the planet. So it’s a great honour to talk to you about your background, how you got here, and also the work that you are undertaking with Regrow.
AV: I’m privileged to represent the work that our team is doing in this space, and I’m very happy to talk about it so that more people learn and certainly join us in the cause.
TH: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you arrive as the co-founder and CEO of Regrow? And what’s been your story to get to the point where you find yourself today?
AV: I think it’s becoming more and more clear that there is now a generation of people with climate anxiety. I think I had that realisation really early on that I wanted to work on something that would have a very big impact, and if there was anything I could do in the world, what would that be?
Living in the South of Ukraine made me really feel that it’s important to do something with nature, but I didn’t necessarily know how. I don’t have green thumbs; that’s my mother’s privilege. Similar to her and others in my family, I am an engineer. I look at things and want to come up with sustainable solutions that may enable systems and the transformation of certain processes.
And when I was doing my Ph.D., much, much later in my professional career, I was working with a lot of satellite imagery and a lot of data that gives an understanding of what’s happening in the natural world and how humanity is terraforming it, so to speak. With this information in the hands of decision-makers, this can really be a game changer. And this is where the idea for the company that is now called Regrow, and originally called FluroSat, started.
This is really a long and winding journey that we may not have time to cover. I don’t want to misrepresent this as a very simple set of steps, as they were definitely not that simple and straightforward, but that’s the short version of how we got here.
TH: So, you’re originally from Ukraine, is that right? And where did you study in Ukraine and then go to do further education outside of the country?
AV: That’s correct. So I started with my bachelor’s in Kyiv and then I was part of the exchange program with the Warsaw University of Technology in Poland. So I did my master’s in combination within the two universities, at Warsaw University of Technology primarily, but also defended the master’s thesis in Kyiv as well.
I’ll just also say that in parallel to those more academic pursuits, I was also really engaged in the startup life and participated in a number of young businesses forming as well as supporting maybe a bit more formed teams around founders. This is where I really learned the startup kitchen, so to speak…so “how it’s made,” and what are the things that need to be done and how they’re done, to understand how to launch a business.
And with that, there was the understanding that at some point in time I may want to do that, so I wanted to acquire the skills for it.
So in parallel to my studies in Europe, and then subsequently the Ph.D. at the University of Sydney, I was always involved in startup projects as well as educating the next generation and trying to share where we’re at with the technology.]
TH: So, at what point does, let’s say to use your phrase, climate anxiety, move from being a concern to a motivation for change? I’m sure there are a lot of people around the world that share your anxiety but only a very tiny percentage take up the challenge.
AV: I believe it wasn’t as much of a decision on my part, as much as the preparation over the years to be able to undertake the development of such a project that would have an impact on climate. I was not sure where it would be…but the time came during my Ph.D. to reconsider that aspiration that I had.
I realised that, due to my upbringing as well as where I studied and the communities and countries and lifestyle that I was more familiar with…there’s this phrase that founders should always look for unfair advantage…I felt like it gave me the unfair advantage of not just being someone who understands technology and wants to see it applied for the benefit of the people around the world, but also the insight into the agricultural industry. Maybe I didn’t know everything about large-scale industrial farming, but I knew about how the crops grew and mid-scale industrial farming, and small-scale smallholder farming…that came fairly naturally by growing up in the environment where we had access to the land. And part of my family came from that background. So, for an industry that I would try to apply the impact of this project to, it wasn’t a very hard choice.
In response to the question about how other people can now enter this space, a lot has changed in the last five years. The industry effectively has formed around climate tech solutions. So if you’re looking to apply your skills, whatever they may be, to a climate tech company, it’s much more straightforward how to go about doing that search. You can relatively quickly get an understanding of what is out there.
There’s a misconception that there are very specific sets of jobs that only apply to climate, whilst actually, you can be in marketing, you can be a software engineer, you can be a product manager…yes, in some cases it’s beneficial to have industry knowledge or understanding of the customer group that we’re serving, but largely the same best practices apply no matter what industry you’re in.
TH: Really good point. And the way you present it there, I do think that some of the most accomplished founders are the people that dedicate themselves to that kind of focus on lifetime learning. I think from the outside looking in, many people perhaps wrongly assume that the founders in the space profess to be experts, you know, in a particular sector. But as you’ve just described, even in the work that you do, you are still learning and it’s something which I think resonates with a lot of people. That actually being humble and being able to be open-minded and dedicated to that thought process of always improving and learning the customer, and the problem, and what solutions are perhaps most impactful, I think is something that many people take from conversations of this type.
AV: Absolutely. And I think the sheer dedication to a problem and the passion to find the solution to that problem within whatever market or industry this may apply. This may already earn someone the time of the people who encounter that problem on a daily or weekly basis, and it would be just incredible for them to see someone coming in and wanting to apply their time, their efforts, and their intellectual abilities to solving this problem that seemingly has nothing to do with their own day-to-day.
And I think people may underestimate how important that is to really be dedicated to a space, to serving the people that are encountering those problems and really figuring out what is the best way to solve them. I think that approach can really help, as well as reduce the barrier of entry into the space.
TH: Interesting. How long have you guys [Regrow] been established?
AV: Over six years now as a company since the founding.
TH: You guys were, I think, two organisations and there’s been an acquisition along the way. Could you tell me a little bit about how those two companies came together and I guess the natural fit of those two brands combined?
AV: When the company that I started (FluroSat), which is now part of Regrow, worked on a number of agronomic decision support problems and looked to bring more of a sustainability lens quite directly into that decision-support tooling, we discovered that there were partners like the company that my co-founder Bill Salas had started, Dagan, and that they approached the problem not from the agronomic-field-forward point-of-view, but really from a landscape-top-down point-of-view, and specifically looked at it more through the lens of sustainability than the agronomic decisions.
Ultimately, that language of agronomic practices denotes both paths, but being able to look at profitability and sustainability jointly allows us to think of a truly sustainable transition to a resilient agricultural production that fits both the planetary boundaries and needs, as well as supports the livelihoods of those who farm.
So when we discovered that synergy, and that we were building in the direction of each other, we had the realisation that it would be a lot wiser, more efficient – more capital efficient and just, from the climate action standpoint, we don’t have much time – but if we join forces, this is something that we can truly accomplish and achieve better together. We truly have a synergy of one plus one equals more than two.
When we merged the two companies together, I believe the fact that the values were so aligned and the vision and the goal was so clear, this really had allowed us to navigate the acquisition with minimal challenges. And of course, there were still adaptations that needed to be made on either side to become one Regrow, but it’s more than two years now and I can say that it definitely feels like just one company. But that’s a part of our story, of how we’re building on decades of Bill’s experience and his colleagues building a toolset and developing the science, and on the other hand, how market obsession and customer obsession has led us to solve the right problems that really matter to the market and to the industry and to everyone that supports the industry. And so I think looking at that and the fact that we’ve merged the science and tools, and developed and launched a number of solutions that are very popular in the market now, I can say it’s been a success.
TH: Fantastic. I can imagine how powerful that is to have two genuinely similar mission-focused organisations combine. I think that M&A, particularly from a technology perspective, is so often driven by finance. It’s driven by the economies of scale. It’s driven by investors. But if you’re in a situation where the mission is genuinely more powerful combined, I think you share that mission and it makes perfect sense to bring that together. I think that’s a really powerful opportunity, not just for the organisation, but then obviously the mission itself and hopefully the customers along the way.
AV: Very valuable perspective. I don’t think we’d even considered purely financial drivers in the consummation of the merger acquisition. So I think it’s a very valuable reflection to have. Certainly the financial side plays a big role. When you’re creating an organisation, you want it to be sustainable. And profit and purpose go hand-in-hand. But it’s certainly been a very mission-first, impact-led merger.
TH: Fantastic! I think you just recently went through your Series B. Everyone I talk to always says that that’s a significantly time-consuming process, in terms of going through various iterations of investor discussions and the overarching responsibilities that come with that. How did you find that experience? And how problematic was that in a market that, from a venture capital perspective at least, has been kind of on the downturn rather than the upswing over the past 12 months?
AV: I think we have been very fortunate to have the right partners that are focused on that profit-with-purpose angle of transformation of the economy and they have the longer-term horizons. That has been extremely helpful. Our investors, including Galvanize Climate Solutions, which is a dedicated climate fund, and Main Sequence Ventures, which is a deep tech fund out of Australia, they really understand the horizons we’re working with and they really care about transforming the industry.
They understand this is not a fast, high-tech SaaS that is sold to another high-growth startup. This is truly transformational for the industry that is responsible for up to a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. That is what’s important to them to invest in. So, I think we have been fortunate to have access to such partners and to their respective networks.
Generally, I would say what also really helps is building a business that is robust and resilient financially on its own. So, we have never seen ourselves as the typical Silicon Valley startup. We may have a few people in the Bay Area, but this is not where we’re headquartered. This is not what’s driving our decision making. We’re a global corporate citizen in that way, and we have an employee population across more than ten countries in the world (in fact 17!).
We have customers who operate in all major agricultural production regions globally and we support their climate action and impact with farmers on the ground. When you’re driving the business from that place of resilience, robustness, and capital efficiency in economic environments like now, this really starts to stand out…how you’ve achieved what you’ve achieved and the processes that you’ve been fueling it by.
A good example would be if your go-to-market motion is heavily fueled by marketing and pay-per-click advertising, this is of course something that will be very challenging to keep up in times when it’s just more challenging to allocate those large budgets. We don’t spend a dime on traditional advertising. So we have a different approach to the market and how we want to grow. We want to genuinely lead with execution, and for that execution to bring us more partners and more customers, and those things start to matter very much when we enter an economic environment that doesn’t encourage burning cash at the highest rate possible.
TH: Yeah, I can imagine it’s as you said a moment ago, that the mission is different, right? So it’s important that people, customers and the ecosystem around the organisation understands that. But also, for my understanding, Regrow helps farmers to change their practice and to evolve the way in which they grow crops globally, but you also help the supply chain…so you help retailers to improve their practice as well? So how does Regrow impact both sides of the equation?
AV: We definitely have a holistic go-to-market strategy and we’re completely dedicated, as anyone can see from the values on our website, we’re completely dedicated to this industry of agriculture and food. And the value chain initiatives are our bread and butter. So, we see the place where agriculture can play a massive role in making itself more resilient through the adoption of regenerative practices at scale. And each part of the supply chain plays a unique role in enabling that transformation.
TH: So, when we talk about regenerative practices…what does that actually mean?
AV: Great question. And I think I just want to preface my answer with the fact that there is a healthy amount of debate around this, but there’s definitely some agreement on the general principles, like keeping the soil covered so that it can develop better microbial life in the layer of topsoil, so that it can better absorb and hold water that it receives.
So, maybe it’s easier to describe not every principle of regenerative, but just one use case where, if we look at two different systems, I think it becomes obvious how these principles play out. If we are looking at a conventional farming system, we’re probably only looking at a system that has a few crops in rotation, so every year there’s one of two or three crops. This is close to being a monoculture and the soil and its microbial life doesn’t receive a diverse amount of nutrients, and is not quite as vibrant and resilient as it can be if, for example, someone is growing more crop types on their fields in rotation.
So, rotational diversity is what this would be called, and that diversity leads to all sorts of biodiversity within the soil, above the soil, and to the animals on the land. Of course, if soil is healthier, there are more earthworms, there are more birds, there are healthier habitats. And sometimes we need to pay attention to deliberately planting or establishing those habitats, because farming is managing our landscapes and without deliberate reintegration of biodiversity, it can be challenging to maintain the numbers of species.
Another approach would be if you’re looking at land that is ploughed extensively multiple times a year, it exposes and turns the soil over, which effectively prevents those microbial organisms to develop in the layer of topsoil quite as vigorously as they could. And by turning over the soil, there is some amount of greenhouse gases associated just with that, with kind of breaking up carbon and releasing it.
And if the soil, through the process of being ploughed, can not develop very good texture and structure, what happens is that if it receives too much rain, it is not going to be able to actually hold it within the column of soil, say, a meter down. It will be a lot more likely to wash off. And if the topsoil contains any residual farming inputs like fertilizer, that can end up in the freshwater and can cause situations like algae blooms in lakes.
So, these are just a few patterns that regenerative agriculture is looking to come back to more traditional methods of farming and re-incentivize them within the more conventional system that we have now. A lot of farmers around the world are already doing those practices because [for them] there’s no other way of farming. And once the no-till farming was enabled through the farming machinery being able to directly seed crops into the ground without turning the soil over, this is the innovation that really got very high rates of adoption in Canada.
In Australia, where water-holding capacity of the soil is very constrained, you need to do everything you possibly can to increase it. So I certainly want to highlight that the industry has a long history of adopting these practices, understanding them, and using them.
But there are some incentive systems that either prevent or insufficiently incentivize for these practices to truly be a part of the normal production system, which is exactly what the industry is trying to change now…redistributing and reallocating the incentives, and understanding how to bring more incentives to the growers and producers to adopt more of these practices.
Because any practice adoption is associated with a certain level of risk. You’ve been doing things for a certain time, in a certain way. You know that your risk is covered . You may have crop insurance from the government. And so if you start playing with the elements in that system – knowing that long-term, it will most likely lead to a positive result and the resilience of that farmland for future generations, which is extremely important for farming communities – there’s a lot of interest in doing that. But certainly, getting that finance to de-risk the transition is where the industry is at, and a clear indication that if you adopt these practices, you can access the incentives…this is definitely a change we’ve seen in the last few years.
TH: That’s a learning for me because I think this is a relatively well-known stat with regard to the amount of greenhouse gas produced by livestock. But I was unaware, actually, of the amount of emissions from crop growth. I wasn’t aware that was a significant problem, so that’s really interesting.
AV: They fit into each other as well, because livestock ultimately consumes those crops and it’s all a supply chain on its own.
TH: When you move that into the supply chain and you think about your retail partners and retail customers, how does Regrow impact or improve their practice?
AV: It really matters here how we define retail and what retail we’re talking about, because there’s two types of retail in just the agriculture food supply chain alone.
You can call retailers, the grocery stores, those that distribute the produce. Also, farmers have their own retailers, their own versions of Walmart and Target and Costco, where they get inputs for the farm, and the advice on what inputs to apply where on the adoption of bio-based inputs is a really big trend. For us, we actually work with both sides of the equation at opposite ends of the supply chain, but I want to talk about those in between as well.
Food manufacturers are a very large category of our customers, and those traders, aggregators and processors that they work with, that effectively collect the commodity from the farmers, process them a certain way, and provide ingredients for the food to food manufacturers. We see a lot of activity in that part of the sector, because often these are name-brand companies that have their brands and logos on boxes and supermarket shelves and they’re very highly visible both to the consumer population as well as to their investors.
They also have a very high level of awareness that the supply chain could be very fragile, and it can become even more fragile the more time we take to constrain the effects of climate change. And by investing into the transformation on the farm, into a more resilient, long-term, regeneratively grown production system – it can also be a livestock production system, of course – those investments help de-risk their business long-term. Because if they’re not able to source primary commodities, or the ingredients, for their foods, this ultimately will lead to that cycle we briefly saw at the beginning of COVID 19, where there are empty shelves and supply chains are not able to support the demand. Nobody really wants to be in that situation. It’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for consumers, and it’s not good for the business.
This is giving you a glimpse into how we work with different stakeholders across the supply chain, because everyone has their role in this transformation. We would offer them different solutions that effectively aggregate the data [about their supply chain emissions] and present it in a way that’s relevant for their businesses and helps them understand what is the level of their contribution into the system, as well as what are the prioritised action items to really get going with climate action and investment in their supply sheds.
TH: Really interesting. So thank you for that…it’s made it a lot more clear in my mind in terms of how you guys operate. From a point-of-view of the mission of the business, how much of that is around the technology that you guys are producing versus the best practice that you’re espousing, if that’s the right word? Where do you spend your time, on the tech or on the education of better practices?
AV: Great question. These pieces of advice and recommendation for practice adoption and the software to implement it are directly and completely interlinked. Where we spend time is based on the customer journey that the particular company or stakeholder in the supply chain may be on. So maybe they’re very aware of their greenhouse gas footprint already and they’re looking to get more detailed, accurate, specific, and dynamic footprinting data that they can report on annually. The regenerative practices and understanding the prioritisation of practices are part and parcel of the action plan that our software would recommend.
And so we look at those in two ways. On one hand, with our larger corporate customers, we look at the climate action arc, at their footprint, understanding the prioritisation of supply sheds and commodities, or ingredients, that they source. And we give them the understanding of what is the potential reduction of those emissions that they can aspire to achieve through the action of adopting regenerative agriculture within their supply chain, through partnership with their suppliers.
And the bottoms-up version of that would be once the project is ready and the brand or supply chain partner underwrites it, it gets rolled out to the farmers in their supply sheds and the farmer then sees it at a very granular level. “Here is the historical data for your farm…here is the part that we collected from third-party sources…here is the part that the producer provided themselves.” Hopefully those align as well as they can. And then we help them see different scenarios. “If you adopt these practices that may be easier for you to adopt, this is the outcome you should expect…”
And we enable the conversation that a producer has with their advisors locally, the people who understand the local economic context the way that maybe even the most sophisticated simulation is not able to, or the socioeconomic context of “Can we afford to buy this implement? Do we have the relationship to do it? Do we have a co-operative who can do this for us? How much do I have to learn about this? Do I have someone to operate it?”…all of those complex decision systems on the farm. We try to paint the different scenarios for them to choose from to de-risk the outcome, because if they have no idea what outcome to expect going into it, it’s very difficult for them to decide.
And underwriting the outcome has one incredibly valuable collateral benefit to it, which is you can then get the companies that sourced from this farmer to pay them part of the outcome value forward, so that the farmers can be more comfortable transitioning. And that is really how we’re seeing the unlock of the transformation happen.
TH: Interesting. So I’m guessing it’s science and technology-based, and that then informs best practice and informs the change. I can see how powerful that could be. So from a Regrow point-of-view, we touched on earlier that you’ve had a relatively significant round of funding in Q2 (2022). How do you intend to use that investment? And what kind of path is the organisation on today? What does the future look like for Regrow, forward from this point?
AV: What we’re utilising the funding from our Series B for is international expansion. Considering the impact and the mission of our organisation, the expansion is along several dimensions. It can be the geographical expansion of opening up the availability of our software in new markets for our customers and local communities. On the other hand, it can be covering additional supply chains.
So, we’ve recently made an announcement with a partner company, AgriWebb, that we started a joint opportunity of working in the livestock sector together. This is something that, previously, Regrow has not directly played in, but our base of many years of R&D, and now the willingness of the sector to collaborate as well as availability of the data, enabled us to grow into the supply chain.
So together those two things, plus of course, continuing to broaden and deepen our core software suite so that it is a comprehensive solution for what the customers are looking for when they’re thinking about agricultural footprint abatement and investment into core value chain programs, those are the dimensions that keep us busy.
TH: What about things like the growth of the organisation? I know that you guys have got some people in California, as you’ve spoken about. What are the growth points geographically that you feel are most appropriate for the organisation at this time?
AV: What we’re looking at is more bolstering and doubling down on the bets that we’re seeing coming through with good returns. Prior to our Series B, we’d already entered a number of new markets as market development and scoping exercises. Those markets themselves had a lot of conducive regulation improved or changes in government that were doubling down on them.
So Brazil, Europe, and Australia all have either elected a government that is very pro-climate action or have put forward policies like the Green Deal. Australia has reviewed its approach to development of climate projects on the ground to allow more scalable applications of technologies like ours. This is what we are doubling down on. And of course, it comes hand-in-hand with more traction and demand that we’re seeing in the market, so we respond by bolstering our team in those regions.
TH: Okay, tell me, in summary, about the culture that you guys have internally within the organisation. If I was a Regrow employee, what might my day-to-day experience be? And what do you expect of the team, in a similar way?
AV: Great question.
If I look at employee engagement surveys and see what comes through in those, in the words of Regrowers themselves, they perceive the company as a very highly collaborative, challenging, but also highly caring culture. And those are the elements with which I believe we approach our work. We understand that this challenge is grand, but if people like us, who really deeply care about it and have the complementary industry knowledge for enabling technology and science, don’t work on it together…then how are these problems ever going to be solved?
Just to kind of run down the list of our values, which I believe are extremely true – and it comes through in a number of conversations with both new hires, in terms of what they’re finding refreshing when they’re coming into the business, as well as their reflections on how the business shows up when onboarding them, or when just making regular decisions – impact with efficiency is one of our key values. I spoke a lot about capital efficiency and being very mindful of spending resources and trying to build a sustainable business and so on.
Transparency…there’s an extremely high level of transparency in the organisation. And of course, all the values that we spoke about, teamwork and ownership and the extreme commitment to customers that we have. So that’s what someone could expect from Regrow, from working with us, inside or outside, that attracts them to the company.
TH: What about from a customer perspective? If you think about the organisations that you’ve been engaging, how many customers does Regrow have today and how geographically dispersed are your network of partners and customers?
AV: We have different size customers. We work with some of the largest food and ag brands in the supply chain. So we work with quite a considerable and formidable group of those. They, of course, hold an outsized percentage of supply chain access, which is fantastic.
Apart from those “whale” enterprise customers that we have, with whom we’re leading the market transformation together, we also have a number of mid-sized customers, those smaller brands that want to do the right thing. And there are almost 100 of these different organisations. Not counting the farmer communities and, specifically, their farming families or enterprises that we work with, just on the corporate side would be almost 100 customers.
TH: Fantastic. It sounds like such a great story, and I think that you’ve been able to articulate on a number of levels today, during our conversation, the size of the mission and the size of the challenge. But it seems to me as though you’ve got great backing and you’ve got a growing team.
But I’ve spoken to other people in the sustainability industry who say that people just don’t think that change is necessary right now. There is a point of critical difference, I guess, in the market generally when that question is raised. What would be your opinion? Is there enough change happening today?
AV: That is certainly a prevalent topic of conversations and whether we call it “climate smart,” “regenerative,” or more “sustainable” farming practices, ultimately we are talking about it and trying to understand how to make farm enterprises more resilient against climate volatility and how to get everyone downstream from them more engaged.
I think the constant conversation and number of projects that are cropping up as well is growing. I’m certainly very encouraged by the industry’s willingness, desire and momentum to truly enable this transformation.
Of course, there’s more amazing things that will be coming on board. But some industries don’t have that. Some industries really have to invest in a completely new infrastructure or develop new processes for industrial and manufacturing industries that are simply not there yet, or not available at scale.
Agriculture, through the system of incentives and education and emphasis on the importance of these practices and trends of climate change and resilience against it, will lead the climate action transformation amongst other industries.
TH: It’s a huge mission and one that I’m really thankful that you’ve taken the time to share with us today. Because looking from the outside in, it’s a huge challenge, but it sounds that it’s one that’s in safe hands with you and the Regrow team.
AV: We surely hope so, and work tirelessly to make it so every day!