LettUs Grow — a UK startup designing aeroponic systems and farm management software for vertical farms, greenhouses and other indoor ag spaces — has secured £2.35 million ($3.1 million) in seed funding.
Early-stage life science and engineering investors Longwall Venture Partners led the round, which marks its inaugural agri-foodtech investment. Also joining the round were University of Bristol Enterprise Fund (managed by Parkwalk), Bethnal Green Ventures, and ClearlySo.
The funding comes as hopes rise for a 2020s boom in vertical farming — a catch-all term for the practice of growing produce in vertical stacks using soil, hydroponics, or aeroponics, often with near-constant artificial lighting systems that take nightfall and winter out of the equation. Even Britain’s once-staid Sunday Times is getting giddy with hype, publishing a story about how “agricultural companies” in the UK had announced plans for “at least” fifty vertical farms across the country.
The Times list does seem strangely lopsided compared to AFN‘s in-house research, however: forty of that fifty from their list appear to be planned by just one company — Edinburgh’s Shockingly Fresh — which hopes to cover a total of 123 acres and claims to have “five already under development — one in Scotland and four in England.” Just one shows on the website: planning permission for a 1.3 hectare site at Offenham, near the Cotswolds in the UK. The company was raising a seed round of funding in October.
Still, the huge numbers globally do point to big money trying to solve some of the technical obstacles in the way of financial viability or full autonomy for these farms. Last year, for instance, the Berlin-based portable vertical farm startup InFarm disclosed a vast Series B raise of $100 million, bringing its total funding to $134 million. In 2017, indoor vertical farming company Plenty managed to raise $200 million of Series B funding, led by Softbank’s now embattled Vision Fund. Similarly, in December 2018, Bowery Farming, the New York-based indoor farming group, secured a $90 million Series B round, led by Google’s venture arm GV. 80 Acres raised a not-insignificant $40 million round in 2019, to complete what it said would be the world’s first fully automated farm.
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An aeroponics angle
Where LettUs Grow wants to make their mark in this space is in aeroponics, a growing process where plant roots dangle in the air, intermittently tickled and nurtured with a misty spray of water and nutrients. It compares to hydroponics, another soil-less method of growing plants, where a plant’s roots come into direct contact with nutrient-rich water through piping.
“Historically, aeroponics is a more complex system than hydroponics from an engineering standpoint,” LettUs Grow CEO Charlie Guy told AFN in a phone interview this week, confirming the funding round and outlining his company’s 2020 strategy. However, his company’s new system, he says, is about making aeroponics both far simpler to use and easier to maintain. Getting the useability and maintenance right can consolidate on certain fundamental “root gas exchange advantages” that aeroponics holds over hydroponics, a process where nutrient-infused water is gently trickled through the plant roots. One of those advantages, Guy claims, is that his company’s tests have shown growth rate increases of over 70% across a range of crops, compared to hydroponics and other current vertical farming methods. Aeroponics is also less prone to things like mould infections, he says.
This thinking, if adopted, could change the infrastructure and approach of vertical farms, most of which have opted for hydroponics. Due to its water recapture and reuse, the company website claims the LettUs Grow system also uses 95% less water than traditional agriculture, needs no pesticides and “can be set up anywhere in the world: from cities to deserts.”
LettUs Grow sells stackable modular aeroponic tiers, as well as an entire modular aeroponic farm with different size options or built to order. It also offers a “closed-loop” farm management software solution alongside the hardware called Ostara. Named after the Germanic Goddess from whose name the celebration of Easter is derived, Ostara automates and controls the whole indoor farm, Guy explained. It collects data on plants, overseeing inputs to crop growth and allowing farmers to trace crops from seed to sale, making operations more efficient.
The investment will allow the company to build its second aeroponic research centre, scale the existing technology, deliver on its growing sales pipeline and accelerate new product lines to market, the team says. Describing her company’s decision to invest in LettUs Grow, Rebecca Todd of Longwall Venture Partners told AFN that she had come across LettUs Grow through its chairman Hadyn Parry, and had been impressed by its combination of hardware and software to make aeroponics “more accessible.”
“What we always look for is a company that can be game-changing,” said Todd.”This technology should be very useful to vertical farmers, but not just for vertical farmers. There are lots of other use cases for aeroponics as well.”
As for the decision to invest in agri-foodtech for the first time, she described the sector as a whole as “increasingly interesting,” calling agri-food tech investments “increasingly interesting” in light of the growing sense of public urgency to counter climate change.
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