Entrepreneur: Matt Liotta, a former software engineer, designed a computer program to control light, temperature and moisture levels in old shipping containers, creating an ideal environment for growing lettuce. His company, PodPonics, transformed an unused lot in Atlanta into a productive farm.
"Aha" moment: After selling his telecommunications company in 2008, Liotta took time off to develop business ideas. During a trip to an Atlanta supermarket, he noticed that most of the fruits and vegetables came from other states or countries. "Almost all of the lettuce consumed in the U.S. comes from California," he says. "There is such a demand for fresh, local produce, but almost no one outside of California is growing lettuce on a large scale." Liotta realized that if he applied his software engineering skills to farming, he could develop a solution to the local food production issue.
Seed money: In 2010 Liotta created a software program to maintain ideal growing conditions, purchased four metal shipping containers and set up a test site in a parking lot in an industrial section of Atlanta. He invested $100,000 to turn the containers into a mini farm. Lettuce started sprouting a few days after it was planted. "Overnight, an R&D project turned into a business, and I've been trying to keep up ever since," he says.
Land grab: Liotta raised $1.7 million from investors to expand operations. He found a barren swath of land in the flight path of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and leased the 11.3-acre parcel from Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, as a permanent home for PodPonics. "A farmer would never be able to grow a crop on this piece of land," he says. "We wanted to show that there is a way to produce food without arable land by using technology."
His high-tech approach works. PodPonics produces six varieties of lettuce: green and red summer crisp; green and red romaine; and green and red Grand Rapids (also known as loose-leaf). Each decommissioned shipping container has an output equivalent to 1.5 times the annual yield of one acre of field-grown lettuce. PodPonics grows about 62 tons of leafy greens annually.
Box lunch: In the beginning, Liotta questioned whether lettuce grown in a shipping container would taste as good as that grown in a field. His fears proved unfounded. "We've produced a product that is far better than we anticipated," he says.
"It looks better and tastes better [than shipped lettuce] because we provide ideal growing conditions."
Most of the lettuce he grows is sold to institutional food-service operations in Atlanta. "I figured there would be some skepticism about eating lettuce that was grown in a metal box," he says. "But our customers love it [and] think it's cool."
The plot thickens: In 2012 PodPonics began expansion into Dubai (home to one of Liotta's investors) and plans to place 50 containers in the region this year. The lettuce grown in the Middle East, which currently receives most of its bagged salad from California, will be distributed via retail and food-service operations in schools and hospitals. "We've gotten a lot savvier about the lettuce world, and we understand the worldwide potential of this business," Liotta says.
Up next: Construction of an Atlanta processing plant is in the works. Having a facility where all lettuce grown on-site can be rinsed, dried and packaged will allow PodPonics to meet federal regulations for selling lettuce in supermarkets. Liotta expects his produce will go from shipping containers to store shelves by the first half of 2013.