The Future of Food: An Interview with Soli Organic’s Matthew Ryan
As consumers grow more interested in the benefits of healthy eating and sustainable food, the global market for organic groceries is growing. The extra cost at checkout, however, remains a significant barrier for shoppers who are forced to decide between healthier options and household budgets.
“The higher price point of organic produce is a huge factor for consumers – and that is understandable,” says Matthew Ryan, the new CEO of Soli Organic. “We want to open up the market for organic by removing that barrier for families.”
At Soli Organic, Ryan is leading a team that is disrupting the global food system with a holistic, precise approach to controlled-environment agriculture (CEA). “To make a real mark on the food industry, certified organic produce must be both sustainable and affordable,” he says. With its indoor growing technologies, Soli Organic is improving the environmental impact of agriculture and, for the first time, making it possible to offer competitive prices for organic produce.
The next big step, he adds, is to tell the story. In this interview with XPV Water Partners, Ryan shares how his team is building a compelling brand narrative to expand the market for organic produce.
Q. Matthew, you have an impressive track record of building strong, competitive brands through leadership roles high-profile companies, including Starbucks and Disney. Tell us a bit more about your professional background.
Matthew Ryan: There’s a common thread in the work that I do. Ultimately, I’m a business strategist and consumerist, combining the worlds of marketing and strategy. At Disney, the heart of the company is the end consumer. As head of Brand Management, I helped leadership make strategic decisions tied to consumer brand preferences. At Starbucks, I was the Chief Strategy Officer. As digital became the centre of our efforts, that role morphed into Chief Marketing Officer. I worked on product, pricing, R&D, and anything that touched the customer outside of our core operations. Through my time at both companies, I learned a lot about how brands work and how to develop them.
Q. Why make the move to Soli Organic? What caught your interest about the company?
Ryan: For me, it’s an exciting consumer proposition and branding challenge. If you can’t offer a consistent product, you can’t have a successful brand. This has been a long-standing issue for the produce market. With our approach to controlled environment agriculture, however, we’ve developed a way to deliver consistent, reliable, organic products.
We also address cost. Many consumers would prefer to choose organic produce, but the biggest barrier is always the price. For the first time in this industry, Soli Organic can offer organic produce at prices that compete with non-organic options. Our holistic approach to growing indoors unlocks an incredible proposition for customers and an exciting opportunity to brand our products.
Our company’s track record for sustainability is also incredibly important, especially as younger consumers begin to use this filter when they make decisions about brands.
Q. What differentiates Soli Organic from its competitors? What are the greatest growth opportunities that you see for the company?
Ryan: Organic produce is a niche business, but it’s growing quickly and there’s a lot of market share to be claimed as consumers convert. Thanks to our proprietary, patented technology and approach, we’re already ahead of our competitors when it comes to pricing. We’re also the only company in the world that can grow certified organic produce indoors.
As we build our national footprint in the United States, we’ll be increasing our distribution and launching more products. Our technology has enabled us to open up more of the market. When paired with a strong, established brand, we can also use it to start working on and offering more food categories.
Most importantly, we’ve got a strong team with unmatched expertise in science, R&D, and business. This makes our team uniquely prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Q. Why is it important to move agricultural growing methods from outdoor fields to indoor controlled-environment facilities? Are there specific technologies that you’re using that are changing the industry? What role does your proprietary water technology play in your overall system?
Ryan: Broadly speaking, our controlled environment agriculture brings the best of nature indoors. We think of all of the inputs that plants require. What’s in the soil? How do you fertilize, irrigate, provide space, and control air flow most efficiently? For 12 years we’ve been developing a knowledge of how these things work together. With the help of AI, we can optimize our growing to get the best possible quality with the most efficient use of resources. That holistic approach keeps us developing the best-performing produce on the market.
As for water use – the consensus is that controlled indoor agriculture uses 95% less water, but not everything is the same, and that standard is based on hydroponics, a system that relies on water to get nutrients to plants. Soli Organic uses soil to provide nutrients in a completely unique controlled environment. Our BioFarm facilities collect rainwater in rooftop retention ponds and we use a closed-loop biofilter system to convert this water to liquid nitrate, which we use to sub-irrigate crops into our soil-based systems. We can use much less water this way, and we’re in the process of proving how much we’re saving compared to other methods.
Q. The company recently rebranded Shenandoah Growers to Soli Organic. Tell us about the change. Why did you feel it was important to take this step?
Ryan: Shenandoah Growers had a fantastic business growing organic produce outdoors for thirty years. For the past 12, our company was quietly developing the technology to move operations indoors, taking cues from nature to grow our produce more efficiently and effectively. Soli Organic is not only a play on words (“soil,” “soley”); it represents a superior quality, a better price point, and the future of food. We simplified our name to tell people who and what we are. Over the next year, consumers can start to expect to see this brand name showing up on store shelves.
Q. What excites you most about joining Soli Organic?
Ryan: It’s a rare opportunity. Through our technology, Soli Organic can help the world make food systems more sustainable. At the same time, we can remove barriers and make organic food accessible to consumers. When you have those two things together, it’s magical. It’s why we’re here.