Future Crops isn’t your typical vertical farming startup.
For one thing, the Israel-founded, Netherlands-based company uses a proprietary soil-based substrate in its indoor setups, as opposed to the more widely recognized ‘soilless’ systems on the market.
Second, it’s backed by Chinese internet behemoth Tencent – not generally known as an agtech investor.
What’s more: The initial concept behind Future Crops came from the need to reconcile Jewish dietary practices with more sustainable methods of food production.
Today, it operates an 8,000 square meter indoor vertical farm just outside The Hague, primarily run on solar power and currently focused on producing high-value herbs and microgreens.
AFN recently interviewed co-founder and CEO Gary Grinspan (GG) about the company’s kosher roots, its journey from the Middle East to Northern Europe, and why he thinks there’s still very much a place for soil in indoor farming.
AFN: How did you and your co-founders initially come up with the idea for Future Crops and why did you decide to launch the company?
GG: The original idea started in Israel because of kosher limitations. Fresh produce would be considered to be kosher if you couldn’t find, at a microscopic level, any bugs and insects.
With the pressure to reduce the use of pesticide, this becomes a very challenging task. A few years ago, we started to look at ways to grow crops in the most clean way, totally free of pesticides. This would also fit very much the increasing trend for healthier lifestyles as people deserve to know what they eat, and with fresh produce you never really knew how much pesticide was on the product.
We started to develop the technology in Israel with the partnership of the Vulcani Institute (ARO), one of the most prestigious research centers for agriculture, and after three years of research we decided to build our first, large-scale and mass-production vertical farm in the Netherlands.
AFN: Who does Future Crops consider to be its closest competitors – and how does it differentiate itself from them?
GG: We have competition from two angles.
First it is with conventional agriculture, mainly glasshouses, focusing on local or imported products. Usually with this kind of agriculture, vertical farming offers a superior product in almost all aspects, but prices are more expensive. The more we develop our technology, the more we are able to reduce prices to align with market prices.
Chinese tech giant Tencent leads funding for Future Crops’ soil-based vertical farms – read more here
The second angle would be all other companies that develop vertical farming technology. With that perspective, only a few succeed to prove mass-scale production capabilities. This is important as plants in small-scale R&D units behave very differently in comparison to mass production units. Future Crops is one of the few that has a proven mass-scale production unit. What makes our technology very different is the fact it is soil-based, which allows us in many cases to have better quality, taste, and flavor profile, as well as increased shelf life – but also many other benefits related to the business’s viability.
AFN: What more can you tell us about Future Crops’ soil-based substrate – and how is it, in your words, “as close as possible to nature”?
GG: Mother Nature teaches us that most plants need soil to grow. We didn’t want to change her rule, but rather stick with it using technology to enhance the final output. Soil is the natural environment that plants and roots need to grow ideally, and this makes our process closer to nature.
AFN: But one of the arguments in favor of soil-free vertical farming is that it may reduce costs and risks associated with having soil in the system – for example, the presence of certain pathogens, or having to clean produce before it is sent to market. What’s your response to this?
GG: Using soil substrate-based technology is indeed more complex and adds more operational challenges as compared to hydroponics systems. This is exactly the expertise we have developed.
But when is comes to food security and safety, or risk factors, in many aspects soil-based systems are more stable than hydroponics systems. First because the soil is playing as a buffer for the plants if something goes wrong during the process, like with irrigation or other [operational tasks].
Furthermore, the way we have built our technology allows us to grow in small batches which helps us control much better the growing cycle of plants. Finally, related to cleaning, we have no issues as the harvesting is performed just above the soil; therefore, our produce is completely clean, without the need to wash it.
AFN: Beyond the soil-based substrate, what are the other tech elements of Future Crops’ system?
GG: Once we decided to go with the soil-based system, all the technology related to vertical farming needs to be adapted to the platform, including automation, irrigation, lighting, HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] and more. Our processes are fully automated from seedling to harvesting and this requires a high level of technology expertise and complex integration.
Tencent, others plow $15 million-plus into ag automator FJ Dynamics – read more here
But at the heart of our intellectual property lays our algorithms, or recipes, which also here are fully adapted to our soil-based system. We control more than 70 different parameters to grow ideal plants. This is a complex equation [which] we need to optimize to achieve maximum yield at minimum costs and maximum quality.
For the last five years we have invested many resources to achieve the level required for mass-scale production and there is still a lot to do to continuously improve these algorithms. We are also using specific sensors and data science to help us with this. Furthermore, we own a proprietary license on specific seeds that have been proven suitable for vertical and fully controlled farming.
AFN: Does Future Crops intend to operate its own farms, or to provide its tech and solutions to other farm operators? Or both?
GG: Future Crops offers two business models: sell directly our produce to customers, or build partnerships with strategic customers [providing an] ‘ag-as-a-service’ platform – meaning, building and operating vertical farms for strategic partners.
We already market our produce to leading retailers throughout Europe and we are in discussions with potential partners to build and operate farms in other regions.
So far, most of our sales have been through the retailers or wholesaler channels.
AFN: Why do you think Tencent decided to invest in Future Crops? Are there particular synergies with its business(es)? And what strategic support might Tencent be able to provide the company?
GG: I think that today, it’s becoming more and more clear that countries and organizations are looking for solutions for domestic food supply, guaranteed all year round, [and to] increase food security standards, especially with Covid-19 in the background. This is a global trend. Furthermore, sustainability ventures that aim to create a positive impact on our planet and our lives become an imperative, and world-corporates like Tencent and others, have identified this trend and understand the urgency to take a leading role in changing the food system.
Tencent is a strategic investor for Future Crops and can add great value to our business [because of] its technological expertise in automation, AI, machine learning, and other areas; and its very wide network of connections to tech and other companies [which can help us] to expand in Asia.
AFN: What has been the biggest challenge that Future Crops has faced so far – and how did the team overcome that challenge?
GG: I think that the biggest challenge is about scalability and making sure you perfect your algorithm to achieve such a level of output that you could market highest-quality crops at market prices – but also earn money from it. The challenge is big, but every day we progress. Our expertise and technology allow us to shorten the time needed to develop new crops more efficiently and reach the level at which we can commercialize them in the market.