Metropolis Farms' CEO Jack Griffin is either the farmer of the future or a fantastic fraud

Jack Griffin says he can still revolutionize agriculture and build the urban farm of the future.

But first, Griffin needs to survive a war with many of the folks he has worked with. His backers are suing him for fraud, accusing him of diverting over $1 million to his personal accounts. They’ve also outed him as an ex-felon, and are publicly calling him a “career criminal” and a “con artist.”

Metropolis Farms, his massive indoor garden spot in South Philadelphia, was locked last month after Griffin fell $16,000 behind on rent and utilities. Experts say his crop projections were never realistic, while records show he has exaggerated his educational credentials.

And he has a battle ahead facing accusations made last week that he stole $380,000 from a New Jersey school for autistic children.

Griffin, 56, said he’s “the victim of a plot to steal his patented technology.” He said his investors and his former partner, a one-time illegal marijuana grower, are trying to force him out of the business so they can take it for themselves.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The entrance to Metropolis Farms The indoor farm startup, created by Jack Griffin, is now in receivership.

“If you notice, three-quarters of the suit trashes me,” he said last week. “The Lindbergh kidnapping was probably my fault.”

Griffin said the school for autistic children didn’t have a building ready for the vertical farm that he promised to construct for it. When it came time to deliver, “we got some of the work done,” he said. “We just ran out of cash.” He said he intends to make good on his debt.

The future was once bright for Griffin. Four years ago, he set out to build a revolutionary urban farm “in Rocky Balboa‘s neighborhood.”

Metropolis Farms was an agricultural fantasyland tucked inside a former factory off Delaware Avenue. Sweet basil, Tuscan kale, and strawberries grew at Metropolis stacked high on racks. Griffin called his patented system “the only indoor farming technology that can grow everything.” He cultivated sunflowers and wasabi just because he could. The kale would be converted into jet fuel, he told WHYY in 2016, “because I don’t think fracking is a good idea.”

Investors and politicians had confidence in the burly, red-headed Griffin, who professed to be a former Wall Street merchant banker. His edenic pocket paradise — which he touted as an innovative tech startup with ancient roots stretching back to the Gardens of Babylon — dazzled futurists, reporters, and dozens of middle-class investors who sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the venture.

He claimed fantastic yields for his crops. Inside a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, Griffin said he could grow as much as a dirt farmer could with 660 acres — with 98 percent less water. His system consumed 40 percent less electricity than vertical farming competitors.

Griffin was hailed as a visionary for his plan to transform Philadelphia “into the world’s first vertical farming city.” He delivered a well-received 2016 TEDx Talk in Wilmington, where he said he could put an end to food deserts and bring “green-collar” jobs to blighted neighborhoods. He said he was building similar indoor farms in “New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, San Francisco, [and] Toronto.”

There were dozens of news stories in print, TV, and online. He was heralded on the March 2017 cover of Produce Grower magazine as “the Man of Tomorrow.” He was feted by Philadelphia City Council and lauded by the city controller. He delivered a keynote speech last year at Indoor Ag Con at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He testified before Congress, where he successfully argued that urban farmers should be granted agricultural subsidies.

Griffin’s charismatic spiel wowed nearly everyone. But experts had their doubts.

“It didn’t ring right with me,” said Eric W. Stein, an associate professor of management science and information systems at Penn State Great Valley. Stein specializes in the economics of high-tech indoor farms. He took a tour of Griffin’s facility.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The indoor farm startup, created by Jack Griffin, is now in receivership.

“His economics didn’t add up. And the strawberries would have wilted under his lights. His patents wouldn’t be worth anything,” said Stein, who operates a small R&D indoor vertical farm of his own. “I used to read the articles about him and I’d get so angry. This was not reality.”

Stein wasn’t the only critic to throw shade on Metropolis and its parent company, Second Story LLC.

“There were so many exaggerated claims,” said Henry Gordon-Smith, founder of Agritecture Consulting, a Brooklyn-based firm that focuses on indoor farming projects. “Anybody who had some familiarity with the industry would have recognized that. He’s not a farmer, he’s a hype artist.”

Griffin said others were not qualified to judge his system. “We may disagree. That doesn’t make me a fraud or a charlatan,” he said. “The only leading expert on my technology is me.”

The history of hyperbole didn’t start with Metropolis’ farming yields.

Griffin presented himself to the world as a former Wall Street banker. He was not. He once claimed to have a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He did not.

“I was a bad man, and I made a massive amount of mistakes, but I corrected them and worked my ass off to get where I am today,” Griffin said, insisting that he did not take money from Metropolis. “This is the most honest thing I’ve done in my entire life. ”

Some of his education came during a two-year stint in the federal penitentiary at Fort Dix.

A former real estate agent in Pennsylvania before the state stripped him of his license, Griffin finagled his way into a California startup called VaporTech. In 2006, as the company prepared for a merger, VaporTech’s finance officer discovered $1.4 million missing. Prosecutors charged Griffin with embezzlement. The money had gone to pay for a massive home, a Ferrari F355, a $60,000 ring, steroids and human growth hormone, Baroni suits, and fine wine, they said. In 2007, Griffin pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

At Fort Dix, Griffin met economic forecaster Martin A. Armstrong, creator of the “Economic Confidence Model,” who was serving 11 years on fraud and contempt of court charges. Griffin said Armstrong had taught him the most important aspects of business and economics.

After serving his sentence, Griffin worked with a former securities attorney he also had met in prison. “We did compliance. We never raised money. I’d rate the private placements,” Griffin said. One of the securities offerings involved indoor farming. After a falling out with the attorney, Griffin decided he’d give it a try. “You can’t get a job when you’re a felon, you have to create your own career.”

Camera icon JONATHAN TAKIFF / FILE Photograph
In this December 2017 photograph, Jack Griffin shows a reporter a strawberry grown at Metropolis Farms in South Philadelphia. Metropolis was shuttered in mid-May.

One business lesson Griffin may have missed: Always deliver on a contract.

On June 1, officials for the REED Foundation for Autism, which operates the REED Academy for 39 autistic children in North Jersey, told the Inquirer that Griffin “appears to have stolen $380,000 of state grants.”

The REED foundation contracted with Griffin in 2016 to build a vertical farm that would create jobs for young adults with autism. It was to be the centerpiece of a $1.5 million state-funded project that partnered REED with Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark and Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Griffin delivered a few pieces of equipment and an HVAC unit to REED’s site in Hackensack, but the vertical farm remains unbuilt.

“Jack Griffin’s actions are unconscionable,” said REED CEO Jill Nadison in a statement. “We just want to be made whole so that our young adults have the opportunities that were promised.”

Griffin said that he intends to make good on the REED contract. “I’m going to find a way to make that work, whatever it takes. I’m honor-bound to do it.”

He said he’s willing to settle with his investors and partner. They have offered to drop their lawsuit if he walks away from Metropolis and gives them his patents. He’s mulling it over. “They want to make me unemployable,” Griffin said. “But the world is big enough for more than one farmer.

“They’re trying to keep me from growing something else. But I’ll be back. They can’t lock my mind up.”