Co-founders Maarten Vandecruys and Frederic Bulcaen established the company in 2014. Rather quickly, they realized their biggest possible impact lay in enabling others to grow produce rather than trying to be both farmers and technologists.
Vandecruys tells AFN it was an easy choice to make.
And since those early days, the Belgium-based company has deployed its technology system on multiple continents, including at IKEA in Sweden and the National University of Singapore. The company also operates a research center where plant scientists develop indoor growing systems for everything from growing strawberries to growing wheat in space.
Below, Vandecruys (MV) gives the details on some of these projects, as well as his own journey as an entrepreneur.
AFN: What led you to indoor agriculture?
MV: It started 2012, when I became familiar with the now-infamous United Nations report that presented 2050 as the “year of doom” for planet. I actually have a background in economics and marketing. But I thought bringing the production of plants closer to the consumer or to the city center would definitely be one of the solutions [to climate change].
The idea back then was to do that by using rooftop greenhouses. But Belgium turned out to be very challenging, for multiple reasons. First, financially, you just couldn’t be competitive at all without using any grants or subsidies. Second, and at least as important, is scalability. This was challenging because solar panels were highly subsidized back then. So roofs were full, and we needed roofs that were strong enough, but also permission from city planning. After some interviews, we realized that would not be an easy task.
At the same time, I was educating myself more on the topic of indoor biology and systems engineering. Through that I learned about using LED lights to grow plants in an indoor environment. For me, that completely solved the entire scalability challenge.
That led to building a first proof of concept. After numerous attempts, we produced a head of lettuce we sent off to the lab for analysis. To our great surprise, that lettuce was way more nutritious [than conventional lettuce].
AFN: Urban Crop Solutions is a technology provider rather than a grower. What led to that choice?
MV: We noticed that in order to grow lettuce of quality, we had a lot of challenges to overcome: climate, irrigation, ventilation, and so on. So we thought instead of trying to be a grower, our impact would be way bigger by enabling others to be the growers.
That was an easy choice was because the environment where we’re located — just west of Flanders — is an agriculture environment with a lot of produce production but also a lot of mechanical and electronic engineering.
One of the realizations we’re now coming to is that everyone [in vertical farming] has been sitting on their own islands. Everybody is trying to do their own developments, research, reinvent the wheel.
We felt it was our job to be supplier agnostic and just see which technology makes the most sense for which application. If you have a system where you want to produce micro-greens, or you want to do research on the production of wheat, it’ll be a completely different approach, different systems and so on.
In the end, what we are trying to contribute is helping companies with return on investments. That means making sure the capex is not too high for them, making sure they have their opex under control. There’s also the uptime of their system and the maintenance and service component, which is very often neglected. Those are the pillars we stand on.
AFN: Talk about a project that really excites you.
MV: Space Bakery. It is a research consortium from Puratos Group, which is a Belgian baking supply company, Urban Crop Solutions, Magics, a space tech company. Then research companies Ghent University, SCK CEN (Belgian Nuclear Research Centre) and Hasselt University. And it was led by Flanders Food.
The objective was to see how we will produce our food 100 years from now and, more specifically, if we would be living on Mars.
We had to determine the most nutritional and efficient food sources, which is how we ended up using breads. It was our job to engineer a system to make sure we could deliver crops efficiently and in a sustainable way. Rockets to Mars won’t be shipping substrate or fertilizer — that would never make sense. So we actually ended up growing wheat using lava stones.
We’re right now in the final reporting stage, so all the data on that will be published soon as well.
AFN: So will we be growing wheat and other commodities indoors on Mars soon?
I do not think that the technology used today into vertical farming will be producing your staple foods.
However, as we evolve as an industry, I think we also have to try and challenge the status quo. I see a lot of research projects showing potential to start doing that.
One project we are doing is integrating an indoor farm together with an anaerobic digester. We’re just at the start, but that anaerobic digester is fed with waste coming from a restaurant. So all the waste from diners’ plates, all waste from the kitchen, this produces all the carbon dioxide needed in our farm. It produces all the electricity needs, produces heat that we use to dehumidify, and it produces nutrient-rich sludge.
Will all these projects end world hunger? No they won’t. Will they contribute more to a sustainable planet. Yes they will.
Perhaps [in the future], vertical farming is just for the production of certain plants that might be very sensitive in their young stages of growth. Banana trees are an example of that — they are produced until a certain maturity inside a closed environment before being planted out in the fields.
Having rapid-response production of vaccines, using plants as bioreactors, is another example of vertical farming’s potential.
AFN: What are a couple big challenges vertical farming needs to address?
MV: I think there are two important things.
We don’t have a proper way of really comparing solutions with one other. When people say, “I have this yield or I have that yield,” what are we actually comparing? How can an entrepreneur make a decision about what system is more efficient?
Also, we need to introduce standards around the growing surface inside the system — what should and should not be included in the space where you put your substrates or the corridors that you have in there to work. I’ve seen everything there. So I think that standardization is an important thing.
Another item, and this I believe will be the next step change for our industry, are developments in seed genetics So I’m very happy to see that are more and more companies working on that. But in the end, our industry is still a niche market today because of the return on investment and plant yields. That really goes in every line of your p&l. And by improving that, and to already hear from the experts the growth potential of growth in their view, we’re able to really increase our addressable market and also our impact.