Over the past few weeks, AFN readers have been introduced to the entrepreneurs participating in Singapore Food Bowl – the food sustainability program run by AgFunder-backed impact fund and accelerator GROW.
[Disclosure: AgFunder is the parent company of both GROW and AFN.]
Singapore Food Bowl was launched with the backing of Enterprise Singapore and Dole Packaged Foods back in May. The objective of the program was to bring industry and startups together to help build a more resilient, sustainable, and decentralized agrifood system in the wake of Covid-19, as well as furthering Singapore’s ’30 by 30′ policy goal of domestically sourcing 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030, up from less than 10% today.
In the last of our mini-series profiling the Food Bowl cohort, we meet the representatives of four teams using technology to make farming — including indoor and urban ag, vertical farms, and traditional rural agriculture — a more sustainable food source for major cities like Singapore. They are:
- Daryl Lim, co-founder at Augmentus (Singapore) – A code-free platform that allows non-technical operators to program autonomous robots for use in contexts such as farming or logistics.
- Ben Lee, co-founder and CEO at InvertiGro (Australia) – Enables customers to rapidly integrate indoor farming capabilities into their existing business models with a modular system and specialized crop recipes.
- Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun, co-founder and CEO at ListenField (Thailand) – Combining crop and climate analytics with wireless device integration, this app gives farmers actionable data for decision making at every stage of the growing process.
- Alex Soeriyadi, co-founder at Lleaf (Australia) – Developing a polymer film that can be applied to greenhouse panels to increase crop yields up to 40%, helping underutilized rooftop spaces to become viable farms.
AFN: What problem is your company trying to solve, and how does your technology offer a solution?
Daryl Lim (DL): Automation offers tremendous benefits, with it proven to lower cost by 63% and defect rates by over 70% compared to manual processes. But even in factories where robots offer their greatest value, only one in 10 automatable tasks is automated. It has been the realm of expensive, highly trained experts and multinationals due to the high technical difficulty and heavy fragmentation present in existing robotic automation processes. Augmentus solves this perennial problem by offering the world’s first unified and code-free robot programming platform that enables anyone, even those with no robotic expertise, to develop and deploy robotic systems with high speed and precision.
Alex Soeriyadi (AS): ‘Lleaf’ stands for luminescent light emitting agricultural film. We technology-engineer lights such as sunlight to optimize plant growth cycle with virtually zero operational cost. Lleaf allows growers to control harvest, increase yield per square meter, and boost profit.
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun (RC): In 2019 alone, Thailand’s rice production suffered losses amounting to $500 million because of ill-preparedness from disasters and other unforeseen environmental factors. In addition, harmful and outdated farming practices are still prevalent, making agricultural productivity even more unstable. Similar to other industries, agricultural productivity can be further optimized through data analytics. However, we have observed that agricultural data is scattered and highly complex, making it difficult for non-experts to make sense of such data. There is a need to simplify and streamline knowledge acquisition for farmers, communities, and institutions. ListenField has created an API ecosystem that combines data from various sources — for example, satellite, weather stations, ground data, and phenotypic data — in order to produce actionable insights for the whole farming supply chain.
Ben Lee (BL): With a rapidly growing and urbanizing global population, in combination with increasing pressure on the Earth’s precious resources and ever-lengthening food supply chains, InvertiGro is founded on the mission to ‘feed the world the smarter way.’ Our innovative indoor vertical farming solutions grow more with less, closer to consumption.
AFN: What gives your company its competitive edge and differentiates it from others trying to solve the same problem?
DL: Existing solutions require high levels of coding and setup to program industrial robotic systems. Our’s uses augmented reality with a scanned 3D environment to enable code-free robot programming without the need for high technical expertise, while retaining the robust feature sets of traditional offline programming software, such as path simulation, singularity avoidance, obstacle avoidance, and interactive simulation environment.
AS: We understand the complexity of light interactions with plants. Lleaf has a range of colours to fit with different growers’ needs and importantly it is a sustainable technology that improves light – including sunlight, which is renewable. Our technology can fit with different ranges of protected cropping settings.
RC: ListenField’s API ecosystem allows us to easily synthesize complex data from various sources in order create meaningful and actionable insights, such as recommendations related to weather, crop growth, and yield estimation. This data pipeline aggregates agronomic, weather, phenological, and remote sensing data. Our FarmAI mobile app and web dashboard help smallholders manage their farms more effectively via their smartphones. We provide full-stack services that help farmers and other stakeholders work together with trust on our information platform.
BL: Many early adopters in the still very nascent space of indoor vertical farming have struggled to find or develop solutions that are commercially viable. Existing technologies tend to involve high cap-ex and op-ex and, once installed, tend to be inflexible and limited in their applications. Our affordable modular growing units can be installed into existing spaces and can be added to as the business’ needs demand. Units can also be stacked vertically to fill the available space, reducing the footprint required and maximizing returns per square meter. It’s a fully supported plug and play system, using optimized crop recipes, [that] negate the need for on-staff specialist knowledge. Our patented InvertiCube grow systems provide the flexibility to grow, and switch between, a wide variety of crops, allowing businesses to adapt their offerings with market and seasonal demands. InvertiCube’s unique design produces significantly higher yields than competing hardware on the market.
AFN: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a company, and how did you overcome it (or how are you planning to)?
AS: It has been a challenge to manufacture our product. We have overcome it by working with partners — both academic and industry — globally. We are now ready to produce our product commercially and the next challenge is to bring it to the market.
DL: Covid-19 has been a big challenge for us. As a robot programming software company, physical demonstrations and a hands-on experience with our product is an important aspect of our sales strategy. However, Covid-19 and safe distancing measures has hindered our ability to conduct physical demos at our office and this resulted in increased lead times to close projects and onboard clients. To overcome this challenge, we begun developing a virtual product demonstration strategy that involved a series of product videos and online Zoom sessions to give our clients and partners as real of a hands-on experience as possible.
BL: As an Australia-based company, in a market that is only just beginning to recognise the need for more sustainable and local farming solutions, InvertiGro’s biggest challenge has been raising the required capital to get to market as quickly as global needs demand. Through plenty of perseverance we have closed our seed round with a mix of impact, angel, industry, and institutional investors […] In the Singapore market specifically, where local growers have either tried, or watched others trial, less-commercially focused solutions, InvertiGro’s biggest challenge is overcoming the perceived hurdles and limitations of indoor vertical farming. Here, we are hoping to leverage GROW’s Singapore Food Bowl as a platform to showcase our technology and demonstrate [that] the next generation of indoor vertical farming does stack up.
RC: Agricultural research is advancing at a rapid pace. Our current challenge is productizing our research knowledge in a scalable manner. To achieve this, we are working closely with industry experts and farmers in order to identify industry and user needs, and then perform an agile product development. We make sure to involve our science team — including agronomists, climatologists, and bioinformaticians — and software engineers.
AFN: How does your business model and mission align with Singapore’s ‘30 by 30’ food resilience initiative?
DL: A defining feature of agriculture in many developed countries is a decrease in the available agriculture workforce. This problem has prompted the development of robots to automate a variety of processes across the agricultural value-chain, such as crop harvesting and maintenance, quality inspection, and palletization. However […] many farmers and warehouses lack the in-house expertise to design and develop robotic systems. Through the Augmentus platform, agricultural companies that range from end-of-line factories to small urban farmers will have a fast and cost-effective approach to automating their processes, enabling them to harness the benefits of robotics.
AS: Our target is generally protected cropping, which could be greenhouse, urban farming, rooftop farming, and indoor farming. To achieve ’30 by 30,’ the key for Singapore is productivity per square meter. Lleaf technology is ready to boost the yield of Singaporean agriculture to reach that goal.
RC: ListenField’s mission is to transform the Asian agriculture industry to a more productive, and environmentally and economically sustainable, industry by utilizing big data-driven agricultural insights and best practices. We strongly believe in paying attention to the needs of the people and the environment, hence the name – ListenField. Our mission and vision can support ’30 by 30 ‘in the way that we can enable and stabilize the food chain from field to table.
BL: InvertiGro’s business model is to enable local Singaporean businesses to quickly, efficiently, and profitably grow fresh, local and sustainable produce. As an advanced urban farming solutions provider, our mission is to enable Singapore-based businesses to help achieve their ’30 by 30′ goals and provide the foundations to begin delivering the ‘other 70%.’ Our tech is designed to be easy and cost-effective to adopt by anyone, anywhere. [That enables] existing growers to improve their productivity, product range, and profitability. [But it also encourages] large fresh produce ‘consumers’ — from F&B, foodservice, airlines, and more — to bolt farming capabilities on to their existing business activities, thereby eliminating supply chain waste, costs, and carbon emissions whilst securing a reliable year-round supply of premium quality fresh produce.