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Unfold CEO John Purcell. Photo credit: Unfold

‘Silicon meets Salinas’: Unfold’s CEO talks tech convergence, startup culture & seed science

November 12, 2020

One of AFN‘s most-read stories of the year so far was about Unfold, a new joint venture between two of the agrifoodtech world’s biggest players dedicated to developing crop varieties for tech-driven vertical farms.

Launched in August with $30 million in seed funding from German biochemicals major Bayer and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Unfold is charged with creating vegetable varieties that “deliver optimized quality and sensory experience.” In the process, aim of “lifting the vertical farming space to the next level of quality, efficiency, and sustainability.”

It has only been a few months since Unfold was unveiled, but the team has been busy getting the global business up and running amid the difficult conditions brought about by Covid-19.

To check in on their progress, AFN caught up with Unfold CEO and former Bayer Crop Science R&D head John Purcell in advance of his appearance as a speaker at next week’s 2020 Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit. There, he’ll be presenting a deep-dive on the optimization of seeds for vertical farming, touching on topics such as CRISPR, the intersection between genetics and hardware, and selecting for desirable traits like flavor and nutritional value. (You can register for the 100% online event here.)

Read on to hear from Purcell on these issues and more.

AFN: What are some of the main considerations for developing seed varieties for vertical farming, as opposed to conventional agriculture?

John Purcell: Produce is always grown under various levels of control of the environment it’s in, whether open field or glasshouse. Vertical [farming] takes that to the ultimate level where you’re controlling much, much more.

When you’re controlling the environment, that really allows you to focus on genetics. For conventional growing programs, a lot of effort is spent on which aspects of the environment you need to be concerned with, such as temperature extremes, water availability, or biological stresses like pathogens and pests. But with CEA [controlled environment agriculture] you’re taking those out of the equation. So you can focus on genotyping varieties optimized for vertical farming. You still have to work on plant architecture, time to harvest, uniformity, and so on – but you’ve eliminated a lot of those concerns.

How can the tools of modern biology be applied in this context, and how can genetics be combined with lighting, temperature controls, and other crop management tools?

One of the great things is we have the ability to measure these controls — such as intensity, wavelengths, and temperature — and we’ve developed the ability to measure how crops respond. We can use probes and sensors to identify how the plant is responding to [these controls.]

Our role is to put the next element into play – to tie the genetics to that plant response. If you control the environment, and now are able to tie in the genetics and define the traits that are most beneficial, that’s going to give a huge benefit to the vertical farming industry and optimize the plants to those conditions and consumer expectations.

Which varieties will Unfold be focusing on initially?

From the varietal standpoint, we’re still early days. We’re doing lots of probing, testing, and trialling, trying to find [the right] varieties. But at the crop level, we have a more defined set that we are working with – leafy crops, lettuce and spinach — and also moving into tomato, [bell] pepper, and cucumber, three fruiting crops.

I think this will be really critical to expand the crop base. Leafy crops are great, but they’re not the whole salad! [The fruiting crops] are more differentiable at consumer level, there’s a large focus on the sensory experience. I think vertical has advantage over high-tech glass[house] here because you can control the environment and select and enhance those consumer traits, and get them every day of the year.

That’s a huge advantage at consumer level, but also for the whole chain, because of consistent supply and quality.

With costs, too, I do think genetics can also help. It doesn’t matter if you have a great taste and offer great convenience, you still have to be at a competitive price point. Not necessarily as low as open field [growing] but competing with high-tech greenhouses and organic growing.

As much as consumers love great produce, cost and price is always a factor. When I think about genetics in that vein, the more we can do to increase yields and increase throughput — getting produce to maturity faster, turning the crops quicker — that translates to lower costs. There’s more conformity, [with crops] maturing at the same rate to allow for robotic harvesting. That can help lower costs further. And then there’s also how the genetics perform under different lighting setups. Can we reduce some of those lighting demands? Light and rent are two of the biggest costs for vertical farms. If we can help reduce the energy load and get biomass more quickly, we can make vertical more economical.

Did the impetus to launch Unfold come from Bayer or from Temasek? What different advantages do each of these founding shareholders bring to the table?

I was previously head of vegetable R&D at Bayer. We were already looking at providing solutions for vertical farming. But we were also doing that for open field, greenhouse, glasshouse – and now there’s this rapidly emerging sector, and we figured we have to feed the beast. We came to a realization that a better tack is to establish an entity 100% dedicated to [vertical farming.]

Then Temasek came in. Both [founding shareholders] provide Unfold with the advantage of being thought leaders. Bayer has a great tech base — we’re leveraging their germplasm. Something that impressed me with Temasek is [it is] very much forward-thinking, Also it has an incredible network of relationships they can operate in many different spheres, so it’s a great enabler for the innovation ecosystem. Bayer can do that as well. Any time you start a company. lots of tech you won’t have internally. We need companies to work with and collaborate with, and both can provide us with that

What role does Asia — and Singapore in particular — play in Unfold’s future plans?

We are really in the early days of putting together our Asia strategy. But it’s clear Singapore will be part of this, and we will have a presence there. The level of interest there is very impressive. It lacks arable land, is great for vertical farming, and [has] an impressive innovation ecosystem. There’s lots of tech there applicable to vertical farming.

In Asia more broadly, there’s a growing level of investment [in agrifoodtech], large urban areas, high population – so vertical farming is natural fit. Of course there’s also a history of vertical farming in Asia; it has been happening in Japan for a while. So urban farming has already been proven in Asia in terms of its role in providing produce.

I can tell you, we have had calls with every place in the world! We’ve been really impressed with how many vertical farms there are out there, and their interest in the genetics. [They’re solving] the architecture piece of the picture, the physical pain points, and a lot of folks are recognizing that genetics is a gap and Unfold can fill that. From the US and Europe we’ve had a lot of enquiries, and from the UK in particular — when they think about how food is currently flowing in [during the Brexit transition period] and interest in having more domestic production. From the Middle East, too – they have capital [and] high-tech development, but they don’t have a lot of production acres so vertical farms make a lot of sense there.

We want to be a global provider, providing seeds and solutions no matter how the [farms] are located geographically.

What is the working environment like at Unfold? Would you describe it as corporate, or more like a startup?

It’s a startup by all definitions – we are just scrambling at the moment! We’re doing the basics of any new startup: putting the team together, picking sites, establishing relationships. Coming from the corporate world, it’s an adrenaline rush. What I think I’ll do that day, I usually don’t end up doing!

We project that, over the next few years, we’re looking at [a team] in the tens [of people.] What we really need to do is build that tech capability and R&D capability. And not just biotech and plant science; our product portfolio will be the seed, but also crop models or digital recipes on how to grow that seed – so we’ll also have a heavy emphasis on software engineering.

In ag, there’s this huge confluence of the digital with the biological taking place. I call it ‘Silicon Valley meets Salinas Valley.’ Vertical really brings all that to its ultimate point, with the plant science, then robotics and automation, and environmental control. It’s just very cool to be in this novel ecosystem that really is bringing in a lot of different disciplines together to answer the question: How do we produce food locally in a manner consumers like?

Got a news tip? Email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @jacknwellis

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