Urban Crop Solutions offers a glowing and growing global future for indoor farming

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From left, Frederic Bulcaen, co-founder and chairman at Urban Crop Solutions, with Brecht Stubbe, global sales director and Maarten Vandecruys, co-founder and CEO with at European FoodNexus Award Ceremony

“Imagine yourself standing inside a climate-controlled, high-ceiling warehouse. In front of you stands a tower with 8 irrigated levels, on each of which lettuces, herbs, micro greens, and baby greens grow under LED lights. Robotics move trays with young plants from outside this grow room into the right position in the grow tower, while on the other end fully grown crops are taken out, ready to be harvested. Can you see it? You are standing in Urban Crop Solutions' Plant Factory — the state-of-the-art in indoor vertical farming technology. A highly engineered manufacturing plant producing not goods, but crops.” — Urban Crop Solutions.

Meet Urban Crop Solutions: A start-up that engineers and builds fully automated indoor vertical farms inside shipping containers and buildings. They also provide clients that have bought a system with carefully selected and tested seeds, substrates, nutrients and comprehensive software grow recipes. The result: year-round production of fresh and healthy crops. 

The start-up’s goal is to create an optimum environment for plants to grow, with the right combination of climate, lighting and nutrients throughout their growth cycle. 

Headquartered in Belgium, with regional offices in Miami (USA) and Osaka (Japan) as well as a network of sales agents in various territories, Urban Crop Solutions will take part in the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit to be held from October 16-17 in London, selected as one of the 13 start-ups to present their innovative solutions.

Produce Business UK sat down with Brecht Stubbe, global sales director of Urban Crop Solutions, to understand the technology that the start-up has developed, as well the growth of the vertical farming market in general, challenges that farmers face now and will face in the future, and Urban Crop Solutions’ formulas to combat food shortage in the future.   

How did the Urban Crop Solution concept come about?

By 2050, more than 70 per cent of all people will live in cities. The population will grow from 2.5 billion to over 9.8 billion, leading to a need to produce 70 per cent more food. In 2012, 80 per cent of the land suitable for agriculture was already in use. Due to these facts, it was safe to say that something needed to change.

That is when our co-founder (Maarten Vandecruys) started thinking: “What if we could use technology to grow any plant, year-round and independent of local climate? What if we could do this using 95 per cent less fresh water? What if we could do this using zero pesticides and herbicides?” Together with Frédéric Bulcaen, the other co-founder who acted as a business angel, they set out to explore this further. 

With the above goals in mind, modular solutions were developed at Urban Crop Solutions: A fully controlled and automated resolution that can be placed anywhere and which can grow any plant. Imagine a closed box or warehouse with crisp white walls in which plants are grown using LED lights, as well as without soil.

In lieu of the Agri-Innovation Summit, where you will present alongside a dozen or so other start-ups, what is it about your technology that stands out and set up apart? Essentially what is your unique selling point?

Urban Crop Solutions has a total turnkey solution, as well the latest technology in terms of indoor farming systems. A big difference with other competitors is the fact that we have plant scientists that develop recipes for more than 180 crop varieties. We also offer all the consumables — seeds, substrates, nutrients — to help you grow your crops.

Finally, we have experience all over the globe, from Belgium to Japan to Miami. 

So when we look at our unique selling propositions, these would be the consistent high quality of produce combined with our biological know-how of how to grow them, as well as the use of automation to bring down labour costs. 

Let’s talk about your clientele and the sorts of industries that you have worked with? Furthermore, would you say there has been a growth in demand for this over the years?

A first category of clients are the entrepreneurs, people who see the opportunity this technology offers and plan to start from scratch. For example, those who want to build a produce brand growing vertically and indoors.

Another category are R&D institutions and corporate departments as well as crop science companies that use our technology to conduct relevant research while being able to manage all variables precisely to their needs.

A third important category is the existing vertical farmers who are looking for a high-quality, third-party solution provider to help them scale.

We would also include the category of existing traditional farmers that are looking to capture the new market this technology offers by complementing their existing production methods. For example, open-field and greenhouse farming.

Do you see other start-ups competing in this space? 

Not really. There are a lot of vertical farmers focused on growing and integrating technology themselves. However, they are not any qualitative total solution providers like Urban Crop Solutions, that have the ability to design and build a tailored, fully automated efficient solution the world over.

We just did a piece about the new Emirates Airlines vertical farm. It provides an example of how other industries can apply and utilize the vertical farm. What are your thoughts on that?

This is a good example of disruptive new business opportunities and vertical integration into supply chains. Zooming out, the broader definition of this case can be defined as food catering companies (a subcategory of food processing companies) integrating produce farming into their business. The technology allows them to capture an additional margin by adding the value themselves as opposed to buying the produce from a third party and enables them to perform just-in-time production with reductions in waste and certainty of ability to deliver. 

You have various solutions on your website: The Farmflex Container, The Farmpro Container? The Plant Factory. What are the main differences between all of them? 

We have two different product categories:

Off-the-shelve product

This includes our FarmPro & FarmFlex container. These are mainly used as a first stepping stone/proof of concept for companies that would like to grow commercially or conduct research on a larger scale in the future. 

FarmPro container: The Urban Crop Solutions FarmPro is a 40-foot, fully automated freight container with a state-of-the-art leafy green growing system. This system gives a four-layer growing solution. Its design is primarily focused on growing lettuce and individual herbs.

FarmFlex container: This system has a state-of-the-art leafy green growing rack setup. It gives a fully automated, four-layer growing solution with maximum flexibility as to what you can grow. For this reason, educational and research institutions have the highest demand for this product, as it allows growth of almost anything: lettuce, herbs, micro greens, baby greens and more.

Then we have custom-made large-scale solutions:

PlantFactory: Our Urban Crop Solutions PlantFactory allows you to grow in any available space, whether it is a basement or a warehouse. This way, you can produce leafy greens year-round on an industrial scale or set up complex large-scale R&D infrastructure.

In an Urban Crop Solutions PlantFactory, everything is designed and engineered according to the available space, as well as to the customers’ needs. For example, the cultivation area, our innovative LED growing technology, ingenious irrigation systems and climate control. 

In terms of industries, what industries do you work with, and what would you say are the industries most relevant for now in 2018? 

Agricultural food production and crop science research are the most relevant industries for 2018 based on the demand they produce for us.

As a B2B publication focused on produce, we are interested in how vertical farming truly can affect the industry as a whole. What are some predictions you might have about the effect of vertical farming on produce? Are there particular fruits or vegetables that will thrive in this environment and produce higher yields?

There exists a distinction between what we can grow from a technical standpoint (almost everything – even strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) Then, however, there is the commercial standpoint. The latter is more limited because obviously one needs a positive cash flow. The capital-investment cost and substantial operational costs (e.g. electricity) require that one selects a crop that has a short grow cycle, high density and harvests the full biomass created. 

As a result, the current commercially viable food production crops are the leafy greens such as lettuce, herbs, baby greens and micro greens. 

Just how good, just how efficient are these farms?

The farms can be tailored to include carefully selected and tested seeds, substrates, nutrients and a comprehensive software tool automatically providing the plants with the right combination of climate, lighting and nutrients throughout their growth cycle. Our solution leads to higher yields, higher nutritional value, food safety and security, higher water efficiency. This can actually be up to 95 per cent less than open-field farming.

On your home page, you make the following claim: “Urban Crop Solutions envisions to become the global independent reference of the fast-emerging vertical farming industry."  How would you say this is possible? 

At this time, vertical farmers are trying to juggle two widely different business plans: on the one hand, they spend capital developing and integrating an engineered solution and the biological corresponding know-how. On the other hand, they then apply this research to construct a vertical farm, operate it as farmers, and earn back the investment not only of the infrastructure, but also of the R&D that precedes it, as well as continues afterwards. In our opinion, this is a poor business plan because they have to earn back their R&D and their operational infrastructure investment with the sale of crops.

If we look at the more mature greenhouse industry, we get a sense of where the sector of vertical farming will eventually evolve. A greenhouse tomato grower that wants to set up a new production facility will not develop his own technology, but instead turn to the 15 best greenhouse project developers, ask for quotes, and select the one he feels most confident about. In that setup, we see technology companies focusing on providing systems, and growers focusing on farming. We start seeing a change in the mindset of vertical farmers along those lines today as well.

Let’s talk briefly about the upcoming World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit. What will you be presenting there?

We will begin with a company introduction, present our unique selling points, newest technology, projects and achievements.

While creating all these solutions, there indeed have to be challenges that need solutions. What would you then say are some of the actual challenges that farmers face today? 

Traditional farmers are combating unreliable climate conditions, increased labor costs, crop diseases, crop pests, soil degradation and much more. Our solutions provide reliable alternatives to all of these concerns. 

Existing vertical farmers from their end are struggling with the high labor costs associated with running non-automated vertical farms — requiring scissor lifts or stairs to harvest the higher levels of crop cultivation areas — as well as inconsistent quality in their production due to poor control of the different variables. Our fully automated and well-engineered system reduces labour costs and deviations from the ideal settings, respectively. 

The vertical farm model is certainly a rising trend amongst start-ups. How did this movement come about?

Well, it’s like I said from the beginning. By 2050, more than 70 per cent of all people will live in cities. Added to that, in 2017 almost 300 million USD has been invested in vertical farming, creating more and more momentum.

To put things into perspective globally, which regions would you say have the biggest influence on the vertical farm boom?

In North America and South East Asia, we see the most vertical farms. In South East Asia, there is a lack of land to farm on and a variety of food safety issues. In North America, there are a lot of business opportunities with vertical farming technology due to the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for locally produced healthy crops.

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