The Advantage of Being an Insider-Outsider of the Urban Farming Industry
Harvester City: Interview with Marco Tidona, Founder of Aponix vertical barrel / 3D-NFT
What does diversity mean to you? When most people think of diversity they usually think of race or gender. Diversity is a big topic for technology companies as they scramble to bring in talent from around the globe. Diversity is also a crucial ingredient for the success of any industry. Food technology has opened doors for diversity. This shiny new subsection of the food industry has attracted the attention of techies far and wide to join in on the food revolution.
Marco Tidona is an urban farming enthusiast and inventor. He started out as a software developer before he realized his love for growing food. As an outside to the food industry, his journey hasn’t been easy. Marco is the proud inventor of the Aponix vertical barrel / 3D-NFT. A solution that enables hyperlocal edible plant production in urban areas. The solution acts as an alternative to rack or table setups. The food industry is lucky to have people such as Marco. We need bright minds from all areas of expertise to help find solutions to our ever-growing challenges around food security and safety.
What sparked your interest in the urban farming space?
I once listened to a podcast from a professor talking about anarchy and stuff just by accident. It was a weird podcast, but he mentioned as a side sentence that the hunger of the world, could be a remedied just by using aquaponics. And I thought, what’s that? So I started taking a closer look into aquaponics. I learned that fish waste is used as a source for plant nutrients and you can harvest the fish and have plants too.
Then I started playing around with my own aquaponic setup at home in Germany. At that time I also stumbled into AgTech week in New York City in 2016 by and I was fascinated by the idea of integration, growing a good part of fresh food directly where end consumers are located, creating multiple benefits along the way. We can eliminate unnecessary food miles, handling cooling, storage, and logistics. This allows for less waste and more fresh varieties at the same time. And maybe we can use other urban waste streams as inputs too. Everything that we consume from the much longer standard supermarket value chain can solely produce items that have a long enough shelf life. This alone limits the varieties and the actual nutrient content and quality by a high degree. We could have greener cities, higher quality local food and at the same time create a lot of opportunities for locally active growers — even small and medium-sized ones.
When I attended AgTech Week NYC, I felt something greater coming not only for the food industry. I have been working as an active software developer for the last 20 years and I was trying to build software ever since. But it never worked out for various reasons. So here it was — the opportunity to build a real-world product in the horticulture field. I also needed a solution that I could use to set up a lot of grow spaces efficiently in my own aquaponics farm at that time. And I couldn’t find anything really usable and practical on the market.
So I thought, okay, this will be a general problem that urban growers are going to face if we want to bring agriculture back to urban areas. There is always limited space and oddly shaped areas. We will need something in 3D but commercially usable. So I did what I did in software development for years: I solved my own problem in a systematic way so that every adaptation solved more of the challenge than it created new challenges.
I tried to make my aquaponics farm as efficient as possible and ended up with a 20 square meter farm, with 100 hungry and growing Tilapia, some ebb and flow beds and some prototypes of the first vertical barrels.
Based off of your professional background, how hard was it for you to enter this space?
I completed my studies in Business Administration in 1999 and came into the job world in 2000, where I started as a freelance software developer. I was good at solving other people’s problems ignoring the noise and just build an extendable prototype. Funny fact: The availability of a working prototype was always the real start of the project. Since then, I have founded small companies with some friends but in the end reduced my workload back to being a freelance solutions provider in one person. Which is very efficient.
I started with the Aquaponic Gardening book from Silvia Bernstein. She explained everything really well to get going. This was the basis of my knowledge and the start for my self guided education into hydroponics and greenhouse production. This is how my aquaponics farm was set up: I drilled and glued a lot of PVC to make it work and improve along the way. After you build some syphons for your ebb and flow bed and experiment with a few versions, you understand and see how you like it to work in production. Same happened with the swirl or solids filter unit that I rebuilt at least 3 times.
Were you successful in building your first farm?
Yeah, absolutely. I was running it for nearly two years. In the end, it was so much work, and I couldn’t go on holiday and show my product on trade shows. I had over 4,000 liters of liquid for the fish. So everything was bubbling up and running in this room constantly. I learnt a lot there but after the 2 years I had to admit that it took too much time out of my days to run it on my own.
What problems do you see affecting the food industry?
I think in general, the big challenge will be to use what is already there in a more regenerative and non-wasteful and harmful way and focus more on the nutrition availability of fresh and mostly plant-based diets. So we can reduce our meat intake, eat more plants, and grow more local produce to get rid of the unnecessary food miles and have more varieties. For people who have their own garden and are used to growing their own plants, if you pick those plants and eat them, it’s evident that it is of significant higher quality. It is also much higher in nutritional value. For the people who do not know this, the stuff from the supermarket is harvested somewhere else, sometimes 1000s of miles away. It takes days of handling, logistics and refrigeration until it reaches your supermarket. In this process we lose a significant proportion of the vitamins, antioxidants and secondary metabolites — the substances that make up the taste and the actual nutrition or ‘real food’.
How is the Aponix system addressing some of these problems?
Usually when people go vertical in urban areas, they build rack systems. So this way you can reuse the two-dimensional equipment and ideas that are already available. I didn’t want to stack levels on top of each other. It is a drawback and you will need electricity to light each level, processes and controlling the conditions get more complicated and expensive. The higher you go, sanitation etc becomes more complicated. And of course you cannot use natural sunlight anymore. So I wanted to build a different shape to fill a three-dimensional room with grow spaces. In this case a vertical cylinder or as we call it ‘a vertical barrel’. Each cylinder is two feet wide (60 centimeters). It’s quite a big thing. It turned out this is the optimal diameter to have the most or optimum number of grow spaces on the circumference with regard to the 3D room we like to equip with grow spaces.
The initial model was a soilless model, but in the meantime there is also a substrate based version that can be filled with some inside logic for draining, filtering or composting. The main product and the main idea is the soilless version. All vertical cylinders that are divided into ring segments or levels. Rings segments are assembled from six of our ring segment pieces, like Lego pieces. By choosing from different available pieces you can configure the actual plant spacing between your grow spaces and go for the height that is available and you like to grow your plants. Multiple units can be chained into a larger setup. Everything is movable.
What are your views on the role technology can play when it comes to the future of food?
Urban farming and localized production will not be able to substitute everything that comes from a centralized, large scale production. That’s not possible but if you can grow, let’s say 10% locally, that would already be a huge win. Of course, it needs to be affordable at the same time and I think the prosumer will also start to supplement this movement by growing microgreens at home or even use special home farms — or just grow some simple edibles in bags on a balcony or a backyard during the outdoor season. We are privileged, and we are talking about the highest nutritional value because we have the buying power, but still too many people don’t or live in food deserts.
Technology needs to match the case of the applications. I think urban farming will be much more diverse than the standard centralized operations which run on sophisticated equipment in 2D and have a high degree of automation. It will be very different and differentiated in cities with regard to the context — who grows, what kind of crop, in what setup for what purpose. There are so many different models like CSA, just growing for your neighbors and barter the produce. There are also some apps and formats coming to the market that help small growers to offer their produce on more direct channels like the supermarkets.
It’s going to be more complex and diverse in urban areas. So we will need to take a look at the individual case. If you’re growing for yourself, you will not need much automation or sensors. At the moment all these new gadgets are expensive anyway. So what I would like to see in the future is smaller sensors, more affordable sensors that can interoperate and make it easier for urban farmers to run multiple decentralized farming plots in the city. And operators do not have to visit every farm every day. Your sensor dashboard tells you where to go because some setup is leaking or ready for harvest.
What obstacles have you faced along your journey?
I’m an industry outsider so I had to build credibility. It was a slow process, but it is working. I showed and demonstrated that my system can work at multiple occasions and I generated more fans than haters along the way. I was working together with universities, who used the equipment for classes but also for doing research or comparing with other soilless 2D equipment. So I had some excellent images already from my prototypes to display. Aponix is not owning a greenhouse. But I can access these research greenhouses and they are operated by professional staff. They bought the equipment, operate it and help me make it better constantly. This is the perfect partnership.
In terms of financing the aponix story so far, I was my own investor for the first round(s) and invested in the design, the prototype, the series production tooling and equipment so I can manufacture and ship my materials. I have been extending the available pieces since 2017 and there are still many ideas for cool extensions based on the vertical barrel concept in my drawer. As of now I have to set up a small organization and find and bind value adding resellers that can be the local ambassadors for our but also competitive equipment. It is only important that these resellers not only resell pieces but add everything that is missing to create some tailored growing solutions for their existing customer base. The idea behind the strategy is, that aponix can concentrate on the development of new pieces and solutions and focus on the manufacturing and distribution part to their resellers who are actually building the cool urban growing solutions.
I’ve avoided funding up to now. I didn’t need it because I could self-fund myself with my work as a software developer. There have been quite some phases where aponix touched or broke the zero line. As an entrepreneur you have to get used to this and manage it. In the beginning, it is really nerve-wracking, but I have the background of doing my ongoing IT projects. So what I lose in the worst case is not my life and my house — I just lose time.
How have you overcome these obstacles?
I started some hobbies to have something else to get me into a different mode. I began to swim, and I train for and run half marathons. So I need to run regularly so I can get into this brain mode where I can be my own mentor. It took quite a long time until it’s just a routine you do, and you see, okay, I cannot make progress. I have to run and let the answers find me.
How difficult was it to find a local urban agriculture community?
There are lots of events, and more are appearing for sustainability, urban agricultural, and professional horticulture. You have to be there regularly, connect to these people somehow. Then you build your network over time. It is cool to see that sometimes I am able to just connect some dots and something cool and productive comes out of that. That is also how I collect my horticulture credibility step by step. You cannot just enter from the outside and tell professionals or entrepreneurs there’s a new way of doing things.
What is your advice for someone wanting to enter this industry?
Go to these events, connect to people, build a network. What also helps is to educate yourself on the circular economy principles and more regenerative ways of doing things. So then you automatically start to design your products or your services differently because you have in mind that at the end of the lifetime, it should become some kind of raw material again that you or anybody else can reuse ideally in the technical sphere if it is not biodegradable.
So for the appendix, the vertical barrel at the end of its life our manufacturer shreds it and sells it on the market, re-ueses the raw materials themselves or sells it. Then aponix or other players can just build new durable pieces and products from it.
Overall I would say start growing some plants, fail, and then look for the solution. Nature is a great teacher.
If you or someone you know would be interested in connecting, collaborating or supporting Marco and his mission, please share this article or reach out using the information below:
Are you interested in testing a ‘small’ ready-to-run setup of the Aponix vertical barrel? Check out more information using the links below.
Aponix facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/aponix.eu/
Aponix new technical user group: https://www.facebook.com/aponixUserGroup/