What are some startup ideas in the agribusiness

Vertical farming: new solutions for feeding the world

Not only futurologists are currently concerned with the question of tomorrow's life. The challenges posed by sociological change in terms of housing and food supply are no longer just academic in nature. Analysts estimate that by the year 2025, five billion people will be living in cities that will develop into mega-cities, also through the merging of corresponding suburbs, as can already be observed in Tokyo or New York today.

Of course, this also raises questions about the production and distribution of food for the inhabitants of these metropolises. The demand for fresh vegetable products has increased worldwide and must be served accordingly. There are currently more than seven billion people on earth and according to the German Foundation for World Population (DSW) a baby is born every 2.6 seconds. The United Nations (UN) has calculated that by the year 2100 over ten billion people will populate the earth. An increase in the population in the so-called developing countries such as China and India can primarily be observed.

Vertical farming: arable land in the desert

Cultivation areas that are required for the production of such large quantities have been found for some time in the most unlikely areas for this at first glance: in inhumane desert regions, where the thermometer can quickly reach the 50 ° region. That may sound like a paradox, but the first examples of vertical farming show that large-scale plant cultivation is also possible in areas of the planet that are hostile to growth. In Port Augusta, Australia, for example, Sundrop Farms began producing vegetables in the driest part of the country back in 2010. The ambitious project of the German-born managing director Philipp Saumweber relied primarily on solar energy and only when there is a lack of energy during the winter months does the system fall back on the existing power grid.

On Spencer Golf, Sundrop built a 20-acre, $ 200 million greenhouse facility that is expected to produce 17,000 tons of tomatoes annually. The necessary water supply is provided by a pipeline that pumps in the sea water, which is channeled through a desalination plant, operated by solar energy. Michael Herrmann from “Crops for the Future” states: “A lot of sun makes for a lot of photosynthesis; and the drought prevents fungi and other pests from spreading. "

In the urban environment, the extension climbs upwards

The agricultural industry is also one of the booming economic sectors in Morocco. The Moroccan-French joint venture Azura is represented here, as is King Mohammed VI's Domaines Agricoles. This boom is only made possible by the underground freshwater lakes and a potential cultivation area, which the Ministry of Agriculture in Rabat estimates at 100,000 hectares, but of which only a fraction has been used so far. 116,000 tons of tomatoes were already produced there last year. Similar projects already exist in Antarctica, operating at the lowest end of the temperature scale.

But growing food is also conceivable in an urban environment. The magic word here is "Vertical Farming", which summarizes the agricultural concept of growing food on several floors of high-rise buildings. The crops are grown decoupled from their natural environment under maximally controlled environmental conditions. This is made possible by so-called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technologies. The idea is not new and almost uses a historical model. When US metropolises such as New York and Chicago recorded immense population growth, the construction companies decided, due to the lack of pure space, to build upwards instead of broadly. This created the skyscrapers that characterize the skylines today, such as the Sears Tower or the Empire State Building.

Vertical farming means plants without limits

The concept of vertical farming was first extensively developed by Prof. Dr. Dickson Despommier in his 2010 book "The Vertical Farm: feeding the world in the 21st Century". Despommier encounters two problems in this: In specially built skyscrapers, fruit, vegetables or useful plants are to be grown on several floors one above the other, which would equalize the limitation of extensive floor areas. Through artificially created, optimal living conditions, crops could also be grown all year round, as the examples from Australia and Morocco have shown. These also proved that the success of such projects lies in the use of the most modern technologies. Solar energy would have to be replaced by appropriate LED lamps, while nutrient solution replaces conventional soil. This form of cultivation is summarized under the term "hydroponics".

Advantages in terms of production and distribution

Production should be resource-efficient, which is why the usage cycles must be optimized and coordinated with one another. Despommier, professor of microbiology at Columbia University in New York, sees vertical farming as the answer to the question of supply in the ever faster growing cities, especially in Asia. The researcher calculated that by 2050 80 percent of the world's population would be located in cities. The inner-city cultivation of fruit and vegetables would not only satisfy the demand for these products, but also enormously shorten the delivery routes by which they reach their customers. Despommier sees the immense advantages of vertical farming in these two points: production and distribution.

New cultivation areas in an urban environment

In an interview with The Star he sums it up: “Growing food indoors, in greenhouses or hydroponics is not an invention of mine. I just brought together a number of existing points that suggest that we could take agriculture to the next level by growing in tall buildings. And cultivation in the cities would probably make more sense than agriculture in greenhouses far away from where we live. ”Vertical farming would not only create new cultivation areas in an urban environment, but also immensely shorten delivery routes to customers. A first well-known pioneer in this field is a man whose name has almost become a synonym for innovative spirit in recent years. Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla founder Elon, is one of the largest investors in the vertical farming sector and, with "The Kitchen", also established a new restaurant chain in which the ingredients produced can be used.

Farms in discarded shipping containers

Musk, too, is based on the idea of ​​supplying the relevant plants with artificial light using solar energy, while their roots float in a specially adapted nutrient solution. While the extension is currently mainly taking place in disused factories and warehouses, Musk's company Square Roots is now making discarded shipping containers available in New York, which are now planted on both sides in several layers. Management, harvest and sales are carried out by the self-employed, who are advised and supported in their task by Square Roots.

Maximilian Lössl is interested in the data collected. He founded the Association for Vertical Farming, which should serve the exchange and joint research on the topic. In addition, Lössl, together with Philipp Wagner, founded the startup Agrilution in 2013 (see page, which uses the plantCube to produce a miniaturized version of vertical farming, practically for self-cultivation in your own kitchen. The company, which currently has 25 employees, offers in addition to Plug'n'Grow grow cabinet also matching seed folders and an application that takes over the control of the plantCube within their own four walls. Lössl and Wagner receive a wide range of support for their company. They made it, Tengelmann, Business Angels, the Gemüsering or Osram as investors. The employees of the company PlantHive from Brussels describe themselves as “urban gardening enthusiasts.” PlantHive, which belongs to the Belgian Eden Synthetics, is managed by the engineer Vasileios Vallas and has dedicated himself to the idea of ​​an intelligent indoor space -Garden, relying on an optimally coordinated environment and egg ne diverse number of sensors and actuators, which should ensure optimal growth conditions.

The PlantHive also relies on an interactive application with which the user can control the living conditions of his indoor garden in the best possible way. The futuristic-looking, vertically positioned container is vaguely reminiscent of a prop from Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey, in which high-PAR LED lighting ensures optimal growth of the plants inside. These can either be embedded in conventional soil or in NFT and DWC hydroponics. The founders themselves provided the start-up capital required for the development and a crowdfunding campaign is currently running on Indiegogo. The PlantHive Alpha series is already sold out. The production of the beta and gamma models is to be financed through crowdfunding.

Infarm plants in supermarkets

The Berlin startup Infarm is also dedicated to indoor farming (see interview) and has set up its own research center in the Spandau district. Infarm was founded in 2013 by the Israeli brothers Guy and Erez Galonska and Erez 'girlfriend Osnat Michaeli, who had come to Berlin a year earlier. The trio also monitor the cultivation digitally and collect data on the pH value or nutrient density, which help them to create the best possible environment for salads and herbs. The company already has more than 50 locations within the capital where vegetables and crops are grown in incubators. The first customers can already be found in warehouses, supermarkets or restaurant kitchens. This year, further locations are to be established in Germany, but also in Paris, London and Copenhagen. Infarm plans to support 1,000 customers in Europe for 2019. The startup is financed by investors such as VC Balderton Capital, the new shareholders TriplePoint and Mons Investments LLC as well as the old investors Cherry Ventures, Quadia and LocalGlobe. Further capital comes from the seed round in June 2017 and from EU funding for the Horizon 2020 project. This means that Infarm now has an investment amount of EUR 24 million available.

Is vertical farming economical?

The Viennese company Ponix Systems is relying on an extension without soil with its vertical garden "Herbert". With their patented hydroponic system, fruits and vegetables can only be grown by being supplied with water. The two managing directors Alvaro Lobato-Jimenez and Alexander Penzias also finance "Herbert" via Indiegogo and control it via an associated application. It can be stated that the concepts of the different startups are certainly similar in their basic form, and it remains to be seen which ones will ultimately hold their own in the market. However, this seems large enough to have enough interested parties ready for everyone, possibly as part of a product diversification of individual providers. Kimbal Musk currently sees a difficulty in shifting food cultivation to vertical farming in profitability.

It is estimated that the construction of a 50-story vertical farm would cost around. Cost 70 million euros. Even if you take into account the cost savings in the transport sector, the system would have to be in operation for a very long time in order to refinance the investment alone. During operation, the energy costs in particular must be taken into account, which inevitably arise with continuous operation of the system. None of the startups has a perpetual motion machine. Uwe Schmidt, Professor of Horticultural Technology at Berlin's Humboldt University, has doubts as to whether some of the concepts will really pay off, but thinks the matter is “quite interesting”.

EU funding opportunities

The examples Infarm or Agrilution can serve as a blueprint of the possibilities for financing such a company. The majority will be financed by investors for the foreseeable future, but there are already EU funding opportunities such as Horizon 2020 that could help cover the immense costs of such companies. Rob Wing, another pioneer in the field and operator of Green Sense Farm, is certain of the visionary concept and ascribes global importance to it: “Vertical farming can minimize hunger in the world. It is indeed a way to save our world. "

By Markus Watzl

First published in Berlin Valley 29.