Chris Taylor and Michael Rose provide a deep-dive analysis of Indoor Agriculture, tracking more than 1,000 companies to capture the technology ecosystem of controlled-environment agriculture: vertical farms, greenhouses, urban farms, plant factories, and container farms…
Understanding the Landscape
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) or, Indoor Ag, as it is more commonly known, has been garnering tremendous attention because of the compelling benefits of growing indoors in a controlled environment. In order to better foster thought leadership through The Mixing Bowl and gain a deeper perspective for investment opportunities at Better Food Ventures, we have created a landscape of Indoor AgTech. As with our partners’ landscape maps from Brita Rosenheim and Seana Day on FoodTech and AgTech (field production), this landscape focuses on the technology of the Indoor Ag market.
With the first release of this Indoor AgTech Landscape, we believed it was important to start with an ecosystem of the market as opposed to an investment heat map. As part of this effort, we are tracking more than 1,000 companies in the indoor space. This landscape is a subset of those companies, and others, that are active in the space. While some market assessments, including the notable AgFunder AgriFood Tech Investment Report, include cannabis, algae, and insect production, this landscape is limited to traditional food crop production, from seed to immediate post-harvest activities, and utilizes a lens focused on digital and information technology.
The landscape is segmented into broad categories of component technologies, production growing systems, and actual growers. Some other important components of indoor operations, such as the structures themselves, energy systems, and traditional or tangential equipment and supplies are not part of the map. Additionally, many companies in this space, particularly established vendors, offer products in multiple categories, but are only represented once. Also, tools that are often shared with field farmers, such as supply-chain platforms and other downstream applications, are captured on the AgTech Landscape created by our colleague Seana Day.
Greenhouses as part of the Indoor Ag Landscape
While there has been much media attention on growing indoors with artificial lights in “Sunless” environments (sometimes referred to urban, vertical, indoor, plant factory,…), greenhouses, as an indoor farming approach, need to be included in the discussion and we have made a point to include them in this landscape. Greenhouses provide similar compelling benefits as a complete Sunless approach and have been utilized to enhance crop production for decades. They have evolved to become technically sophisticated, large in scale and widely deployed, while incorporating a broad range of innovations in energy, sustainability, lighting, environmental control, irrigation, monitoring and automation. There are a number of greenhouse operations where production is already fully automated such as Little Leaf Farms in Massachusetts.
Indoor AgTech component technologies are represented on the left half of the landscape map segmented into environment, monitoring, management, and automation. In general, these technologies may be applicable to both sunless and greenhouse environments.
The landscape includes vendors of systems that are used to maintain an optimal growing environment, namely environmental control, irrigation/fertigation and lighting. Environmental control and fertigation are not new technologies, but as they encapsulate and effectuate a grower’s decisions, they have enabled greater precision and scale in operations. Lighting, the third component, has seen more change in recent years as LEDs have emerged as a viable alternative to traditional lighting technologies. Lighting systems, most obvious in sunless environments, are also applied in greenhouse operations.
Companies offering monitoring solutions, including sensors and imaging systems to gather data on the environment, crop health and pests and disease pressure are also included. Environmental Monitoring companies measure conditions such as indoor and outdoor weather, soil moisture, and nutrient, CO2 and light levels; data that has been used historically to drive decisions and control at a relatively macro level. Newer innovations in Pest/Disease and Crop Monitoring like automated scouting, stress detection and growth monitoring can shift focus from maintaining external conditions to a plant’s real-time response to a grower’s decisions.
The Management and Analytics segment, including crop and farm management solutions, may hold the most promise of all the component technologies. With more extensive deployment of sensors and associated big-data analytics, the growth environment will be increasingly managed by predictive, proactive, real-time, and autonomous optimization by AI that can recognize complex interactions beyond a grower’s capabilities. However, as with field farming, maximizing yield does not necessarily equate to maximizing the success of the overall operation. Forecasting, labor and overall farm management solutions address that greater requirement.
The Automation segments include companies mechanizing nursery/pre-production, production and post-harvest activities. Automation solutions for nursery and post-harvest operations are well-established, including automatic seeders and transplanters on the front-end and sorting, grading and packing equipment on the back-end. Robotic sprayers for crop protection and internal transport solutions such as automatic guided vehicles and mobile table systems are also prevalent. The weak link in automation is in the areas of crop maintenance and harvesting, particularly for fruiting crops. Although there has been considerable research and development effort in recent years, automating these tasks has proved elusive and deployable solutions nascent.
Production Growing Systems
In addition to individual component technologies being marketed to the Indoor Ag market, companies are also selling production growing systems in various formats and configurations: appliances, containers, and sunless and greenhouse production systems. These systems extend almost linearly in size and features from countertop consumer units to acres-scale installations, many being provided as complete growing environments. While one can find countless consumer and hobbyist growing systems on Amazon, Alibaba, and Walmart.com, the landscape does not capture them due to our commercial growing focus.
A step up from the consumer growing systems are Industrial Appliances. These standalone units, intended for restaurants, grocery stores or corporate/school food service, are designed for volume production and can be located in the front of the store and in the “back of the house”. While primarily focused on greens and herbs, they provide retailers and food service with the freshest produce available, virtually eliminating the carbon footprint of distribution. Some questions do arise around food safety and challenges of adding new operational roles to this labor impacted sector. These appliances not only contain all the requisite elements of a growing environment and operating software, but many are offered with a service/supply program that included seeds, nutrient inputs, grow recipes and even remote monitoring and operation, i.e., remote growing by the appliance vendor.
Like the Industrial Appliances, Container Systems offer a complete growing environment, but typically enclosed in a shipping-like container. In general, these units provide a significant increase in production volume and great flexibility in location, including and typically outdoors. Available for a moderate investment (roughly $100,000) they can produce tons of greens and herbs annually. This combination of benefits has made this approach appealing to a broad range of customers from retailers or food service locating units at their distribution centers to rural field farmers wanting to try their hand at indoor growing on a yearly basis.
Sunless and Greenhouse Production Systems
Manufacturers can deploy production systems at industrial scale. They are usually modular and allow purchasers to expand a system footprint as needed. Typically these systems are complete growing environments that include all the necessary components for production, often configured to be site specific. These systems are specifically designed to reduce labor and maximize yield for the space allocated, often through the use of automation. As with other segments of the landscape, many of these system manufacturers are building products for both the sunless and greenhouse markets.
The growing environment of Sunless Production Systems is vertically oriented and typically configured as stacked horizontal trays or vertical growing panels/walls. Most of these systems deliver nutrients utilizing hydroponics though some providers are offering aeroponics approaches such as the Mobile Aeroponics system from the CombaGroup in Switzerland. Currently, most systems deployed are producing leafy greens and herbs, and in some cases strawberries. While generally smaller in footprint compared to greenhouses, they are capable of large production per floor area due the system’s vertical orientation, such as at the Jones Food Company facility with its 17 levels stacked to a height of 36 feet. In some instances though, Sunless Production Systems have been deployed with larger footprints such as SananBio’s Chinese installation covering more than two acres and producing 1.5 tons of leafy greens a day. These systems are being offered with various business models. This can range from a simple equipment sale to a turnkey offering where a provider such as Infinite Acres will partner with the purchaser and provide operational expertise.
Greenhouse Production Systems are typically horizontally oriented with nutrients delivered through various approaches such as deep water with floating rafts, Nutrient Film Technique, or drip irrigation. The systems will operate in environments with ambient light, and supplemental lighting purchased separately. They are available for a range of crops from leafy greens and herbs to vining crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and increasingly, strawberries. The footprint of a typical Greenhouse Production System is quite large with installation increments characterized in acres, or even tens of acres. Automation within systems varies and is usually crop dependent with a minimal amount in systems for vining crops and an extensive level in leafy greens and herbs. A number of providers such as Hortiplan and Viscon have extensive deployments of fully automated systems that handle seeding to harvest.
As mentioned above, we thought it was important to highlight indoor growers in addition to Indoor Ag technologies in this year’s landscape. While it is still farming at its core, technology is the essence of modern Indoor Ag and its operations. Not only do indoor producers leverage technology to farm, in many instances growers such Plenty, Bowery and aquaponics grower, Edenworks, are developing their own technology.
The landscape captures as subset of the growers operating in the market today. Those represented are noted for the respective scale and scope of technology used in their operations, innovative systems integration, novel approaches, or that they are currently pioneering technical growing practices in their country or region.
Modern Sunless Growers, catching the spotlight in the last few years, are standing on the shoulders of early Plant Factories built in Asia where they began over 25 years ago. While most of the publicly identified funding for Sunless Growers over the last few years has been in the U.S., there are now more than 500 Plant Factories in operation throughout Asia according to New Bean Capital. Operating economics remains a key challenge and criticism for these facilities and sunless operations in general, although the Japanese grower Spread, which opened their second facility in late 2018, claims that through the use of technology, scale, and automation they are not only profitable but can be cost competitive with field farming.
Greenhouses are the larger and more developed growing method. Cuesta Roble Consulting estimates that there are more than one million acres of vegetable production inside permanent structures worldwide. Though, most of the technically advanced and greatest concentration can be found in the Netherlands where there are more acres “under glass” than the size of Manhattan. While already well established as an indoor-growing approach, it appears the recent attention on Sunless farming and cannabis has stimulated additional activity in the sector. Since the beginning of 2018 more than $500 million has been invested in Sunless growers. During that same time period, the Greenhouse sector has seen the likes of Equilibrium raise and deploy its new Controlled Environment Foods Fund of $336 million, Gotham Greens and Bright Farms raise $84 million and investors such as ValueAct Capital Management and Revolution invest in AppHarvest, which is building one of the country’s largest greenhouse in Eastern Kentucky.
There are many impressive and much needed community-based and social impact organizations focused on indoor growing. These efforts range from Teens for Food Justice working on urban access of fresh produce to increasing employment opportunities for veterans by Veterans to Farmers. These are important entities but are not captured on the landscape as it focuses on commercial scale businesses and production.
The Changing Landscape
For the purpose of this first Indoor AgTech Landscape we make the distinction of Greenhouse and Sunless as a growing approach or market. This segmentation is done only to raise awareness, to ensure the entire market and various approaches are represented.
Too often we hear declarative statements that “this” is the “right” approach for Indoor Ag or is “the” future of farming. It is more appropriate to start with the question “what problem are you trying to solve?” The unique environmental, climate, economic, and market factors will inform the growing approach. It is doubtful that a one-size-fits-all solution will dominate, but rather utilization of the most appropriate growing structures, systems and technologies for the desired crop, location and business goal. The challenges, needs, and parameters in Singapore are not going to be the same as St Louis, or Dubai. It is not always an either-or question.
Not only are we seeing vendors and technology providers offering products and systems for both the Sunless and Greenhouse segments, some growers are now utilizing or combining the two approaches. Veteran indoor grower Green Sense Farms is now designing combined facilities and Shenadoah Growers, a long time field and greenhouse grower, has added Sunless production to their operations. Deliscious, a Dutch lettuce grower has seamlessly integrated sunless seeding and propagation into the automation workflow before plants are transported and finished in a greenhouse mobile gutter system. Even on the financing front, start-up Contain is providing a leasing and insurance platform for all indoor farming approaches from “container farms and warehouse farms to the most sophisticated greenhouses and plant factories.”
To meet its promise and continued expansion, particularly to those locations underserved by traditional production methods, Indoor Ag needs to drive down its cost of operations. Sunless production, especially, has further to go on this front mainly due to lack of efficiencies from scale and energy use. While indoor costs need to be closer to field production, no one will benefit from a race to the bottom on cost. Indoor and field production are both working on some of the same challenges including labor, sustainability, safety, traceability, and profitability. Technology has an important role in meeting those challenges and we look forward to seeing further advances, innovations, and implementations in data capture and analytics, automation, and predictive and autonomous control.
We welcome your thoughts and reactions and look forward to following the Indoor AgTech landscape together for the coming years.
Chris Taylor, a Senior Consultant on The Mixing Bowl team, has spent more than 20 years on global IT strategy and development innovation in manufacturing, design and healthcare, focusing most recently on Indoor AgTech.
Michael Rose is a Partner at The Mixing Bowl and Better Food Ventures where he brings more than 25 years immersed in new venture creation and innovation as an operating executive and investor across the Internet, mobile, restaurant, and Food Tech and AgTech sectors.