Today’s agricultural models have definitely shown their limits and put a hard strain on the environment and biodiversity. With an increasingly growing population the food industry is constantly in need of new, sustainable solutions. Thats where vertical farming comes in, a possible solution and part of the “urban ag” spectrum, which could help reduce pollution and shrinking yields by growing food closer to the consumer. How does it work? It allows companies (or consumers) to grow fresh crops in vertically stacked layers in an often controlled environment which aims to optimize plant growth.
In 2019 the vertical farming market was worth around 4.4B dollars and according to various sources, it is expected to reach 7.3 billion dollars by 2025 from USD 2.9 billion in 2020.
One startup making headway in the vertical farming stakes is Helsinki´s iFarm, a pioneering company in the space which was launched in 2017 in a bid to create technologies that enable the general consumer to grow fresh greens, berries and vegetables for commercial use. Their plug&play automated solution is available for stores, restaurants, warehouses and homes, a high-tech platform which leverages computer vision, machine learning and big data to collect information about thousands of plants, including their weight and growth, information used to build a system that allows the user to optimize crop yield.
We had the pleasure of catching up with the startups co-founder and CEO Max Chizhov where we asked him about the power of vertical farming and how it feels to be a part of the new urban agriculture revolution through iFarm.
1. What was the inspiration behind iFarm?
In 2017, I was looking for a project that, on the one hand, would be interesting for me from a professional point of view, and on the other, bring tangible benefits to the society. I already had experience in the technological field, that is why I focused on that area. At that time, I also met Alex Lyskovsky (now he is a President & co-founder of iFarm), who had just finished a course at a culinary school in France. That experience left him wondering whether it was possible to grow high quality vegetables all year round, regardless of climate conditions and with the least environmental impact, ideally making profit. His story resonated with me, so I researched the topic thoroughly and realized that that was something I really wanted to do — that’s how iFarm was born.
- You recently secured 3.6M euros in investment. What are you and your teams future plans with this capital?
The company will use the funding to develop its iFarm Growtune tech platform that enables operations of multiple varieties of vertical farms and quadrupling the number of plants available to iFarm’s tech. In addition, iFarm will be optimizing its automated production lines to reduce labor costs and complete experiments with growing strawberries, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, radish and other crops.
- This news comes amid great uncertainties with covid. What issues have you faced during the pandemic and how have/will you overcome them?
Over the last few years, the overall trend in agriculture has been to localize production. This is due to the high rates of urbanization, growth of population, and in 2020 the additional impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the quarantine following it that made the problems of long supply chains and food security even more obvious.
iFarm is taking a novel approach to agriculture, offering an automated solution to grow crops close to the consumer and ensure food security. We believe that the future of the food market lies in modern technologies and are excited to support the project on its way.
At the same time we did not face any difficulties with organizing teamwork. Even before the pandemic, we had been building processes and implementing tools for smooth work of an effective remote team.
4. Vertical farms offer a positive impact on the environment and for consumers to have more access to fresh and locally produced greens. Why is tackling this issue so important for iFarm?
We create and develop modern technologies for city farming in order to improve life of every human being on Earth and to satisfy the basic right of human beings to consume affordable and quality products.
We want to provide everyone around the world who would like to grow plants with a global and a customizable platform for local production of the required products regardless of the season.
- Do you have any tips or advice for the budding food entrepreneurs out there reading this on how to break into the agtech sector?
Launching a project, it is important for the founders and early team members to share the same vision and ambition, and make sure they are in tune. This will help you stay focused.
- There are number of new vertical farming startups making their way into the space offering innovative solutions. What sets iFarm apart from its competitors?
Business models of most vertical farming startups are fixed on selling the edible produce they grow, such as to supply supermarkets and other food retailers, iFarm is purely focused on developing technologies to support automated indoor agriculture. It can be applied to vertical farms of 20 to 20,000 square meters, supporting scalability.
Another advantage is the range of crops we offer to our clients. More than 120 crop varieties now are available for everyone who decides to grow plants with iFarm.
Our main advantage is we know how to grow and you don’t need an agronomy degree to know how to grow. All of our algorithms, all of the data, is based on our software.