U.S. indoor farming startup Plenty eyes rollout in China, Japan -CEO

BEIJING, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Ambitious U.S. indoor farming startup Plenty Inc is actively seeking urban sites for new farms in Chinese cities as part of a global drive to set up high-tech facilities growing organic vegetables in warehouses under banks of LED lights.

Matt Barnard, Chief Executive of the San Francisco-based firm which counts Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos and Japanese tech player SoftBank Corp among its backers, told Reuters on Wednesday that China could potentially host at least 300 of Plenty's farms.

Plenty is currently hiring in China and scouting for locations and distributors in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, Barnard said, speaking in an interview in Beijing. The company has already hired a team in Japan and has "locked down" a few farm sites there, according to Barnard, also a co-founder of Plenty.

He didn't disclose financial or investment targets for the expansion of a firm which currently operates just one farm, in San Francisco, with another due to open in Seattle in first-half 2018. In July 2017 SoftBank's giant Vision Fund led investors in Plenty in a $200 million funding round.

"We see a massive opportunity to get people product that tastes better and also has health and safety that far surpasses anything on the market today," Barnard said.

Plenty's farming model means growing vegetables and herbs on vertical towers indoors, with hydroponic systems delivering nutrients to plants and LED lighting designed to stimulate rapid growth all-year round. The firm says its model means no soil or pesticides are required, as farm sites are entirely enclosed.

China is expected to contribute 25-50 percent of the firm's business in the future, Barnard said, without disclosing numerical targets.

He said the firm saw huge untapped demand amid concerns among Chinese consumers over food safety.

China has less than a third of the arable land per person compared with the United States, but in many places soil has been contaminated by heavy metals and pesticides, Barnard said.

(Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)