Over the last four years, as a venture capital investor in the food system, I have researched and written about controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Recent innovations in more efficient LED lighting and the rapid deployment of AI, machine learning and robotics have opened massive opportunities for a new architecture of CEA: The Vertical Farm.
Unlike other types of CEA, such as greenhouses that must adapt to sunlight and weather conditions at their locations, Vertical Farms use no ambient atmosphere from their locale. These highly controlled, highly automated, highly digitized plant factories allow fruits and vegetables to be grown anywhere in the world with consistent and year-round production. This offers an array of benefits to people and planet: vertical farms use 90% less water; they use very little, if any, pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals; they enable us to grow food closer to urban centers where most of it is consumed; and, that creates less food waste because of the longer shelf life and shorter travel distance.
Because of these numerous advantages, there has been a lot of investment and innovation that has occurred in recent years to achieve high fidelity environmental control, capture and analysis of extensive data sets, and highly sophisticated robotics and automation. However, this nascent industry is still missing one important key element: plants bred for this production method.
In agriculture, the seeds and seedlings that farmers use to grow your food are specifically bred for the environments in which they are grown. They are optimized for the soil conditions, the climate conditions, resistance to the local pests, etc. These same seeds are being used by the Vertical Farm operators simply because they are what is commercially available.
For the Vertical Farming industry to truly reach its fullest potential, a seed company is needed to specifically develop and breed plants for vertical farm environments. Doing so, allows vertical farms to better serve exacting consumer preferences such as better tasting food and higher nutrient density while reducing energy consumption and speeding crop turns.
For example, electricity consumption from LED growth lights is a significant part of a vertical farm’s operating costs and energy footprint. There is untapped opportunity to breed plants that are more efficient at using light to produce higher yield and better quality.
As a venture investor, I was hunting for companies to address seed breeding for vertical farms. When colleagues at Bayer and Temasek tapped me earlier this year to work with them on the creation of Unfold, I was eager to help.
With a US$30M investment from Leaps by Bayer and Temasek and exclusive license to one of the world’s largest libraries of vegetable germplasm from Bayer, Unfold was created to develop seeds and agronomic services for the Vertical Farming industry. I am now excited to join full-time as the Vice President of Product.
The challenge ahead of us is enormous but incredibly exciting: we are building a research and development facility in Davis, California; we are hiring a world-class, cross-functional team of plant biologists and computer and data scientists; we are developing processes for testing, screening, and producing seed for promising varietals; and we are collaborating with researchers and customers to inform and start our breeding programs for lettuces, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
With plant varietals that are bred for vertical farming requirements, the industry will be able to produce more edible biomass using fewer resources with less waste per plant, vastly decrease the time from planting to harvesting, and improve the taste and nutrient density of the produce you eat. The possibilities are only beginning to Unfold.