The phrase “vertical farming” probably doesn’t need to be explained even though it’s quite new. But anyway, vertical farming refers to the practice of producing fruits and vegetables vertically, in stacked layers, perhaps on many floors inside a building, using artificial lights instead of the sun, and a whole range of relatively new technologies.
The two main reasons why it’s a much-discussed topic now is because:
- there are a number of startup companies emerging in the sector and attracting tens of millions of dollars in investment; and
- more people live in cities than do in rural areas, a global trend which seems irreversible, and this means that the demand for fresh produce will increase in urban areas, and bringing the production closer to the consumer would make sense.
The third thing we could have added is that there is the range of new technologies available now that make vertical farming in urban areas cost-effective and possibly profitable. But we already mentioned that.
Some of these technologies have been available for some time, decades even, but they were probably too expensive in the past to make vertical farming a viable business proposition.
The key technologies in vertical farming include:
- perception technologies – cameras and other sensors which can monitor for colour and other factors, such as disease;
- artificial intelligence – which can process the data from the sensors and formulate solutions;
- automated and even autonomous mechatronics – robots and other automated machines which pick the produce when it is ready for market, or apply cures to ailments during their growing.
The above list is a very simple breakdown of the fundamental technologies that will be required to, basically, reduce to a minimum or even eliminate the need for human involvement.
If vertical farms are run like traditional greenhouses, there would be too much human input required and it probably would not be profitable.
It’s the new automation technologies that will make it work.
Carnegie Mellon University is among a number of organizations which have developed integrated systems for vertical farming. CMU’s version is called ACESys, short for Automation, Culture, Environment, and Systems Model for Vertical Farming.
An academic paper probably worth checking out is called Advances in greenhouse automation and controlled environment agriculture: A transition to plant factories and urban agriculture.
In their introduction to the paper, the authors note: “Greenhouse cultivation has evolved from simple covered rows of open-fields crops to highly sophisticated controlled environment agriculture facilities that projected the image of plant factories for urban farming.
“The advances and improvements in CEA have promoted the scientific solutions for the efficient production of plants in populated cities and multi-story buildings.”
So the interest in the field is strong and most people seem to think it’s a viable business proposition.
And to underline the positivity about the sector, Research and Markets forecasts the vertical farming market will grow to a value of $3 billion by 2024, from virtually nothing now.
However, not everyone is convinced, and some people have dismissed the whole idea as a scam. They say it won’t work, will be too expensive and not be able to yield enough to provide adequate returns on investment.
But in some sectors, such as marijuana production, indoor farming is providing a strong foundation for healthy profits, although we are not encouraging that sort of thing – this article is more about produce such as lettuce and other healthy vegetables and fruit, usually found in greengrocers.
Anyway, whatever we or anyone else thinks of the prospects, there are a large number of companies which have entered the field and we thought it would a good idea to make a list of them.
It’s a very new business sector, so this list is not ordered on any scientific basis – just 20 companies that are notable and active.
We’re not going to include Samsung for now even though it’s been on this website recently for demonstrating a home vertical farming product. The reason is that vertical farms are currently not central to Samsung’s business by any stretch of the imagination, although the company may have a contribution to make to the sector going forward.
This company has won many plaudits for its operation and uses its own patented “aeroponic technology… to take indoor vertical faming to a new level of precision and productivity with minimal environmental impact and virtually zero risk”.
The term “aeroponic” farming refers to the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or any earth-like material, which is known as “geoponics”.
Aeroponic systems enable the production of plants using 95 percent less water, which is what AeroFarms says it does.
Although Plenty doesn’t make seem to mention aeroponics on its website, it’s difficult to see how it can reduce the water consumption of its vertical farms by 95 percent, as it claims to do, without the air-and-mist system as described above.
Like the other big vertical farming companies on this list, Plenty is another one that retails its produce, which include kale and other greens, as well as some exotic herbs.
Plenty is probably the biggest company in terms of the amount of money it has raised in funding – approximately $226 million, according to CrunchBase.
Green Spirit Farms started raising money as early as 2013, but has not disclosed the amounts. Area Development reported that the company was investing $27 million in a vertical farm system in Pennsylvania, which would suggest it’s well financed.
However, given that it doesn’t seem to have a website of its own, it’s difficult to say what its current and future activities are with full confidence. Owler estimates its annual revenues to be $1.2 million.
You’d think any farming startup of any kind would steer clear of everything that’s genetically modified, but the fact that Bowery makes a point of saying it uses “zero pesticides and non-GMO” seeds might suggest that some vertical farming companies don’t have the same ideas.
Having raised more than $140 million in investment since inception in 2015, Bowery has carefully developed a distribution network in the US. Its leafy greens are available to buy in Whole Foods Market and Foragers. It also supplies a number of restaurants and sells online.
It doesn’t look like Bowery supplies its platform to other companies, even though some might be interested in its claims, such as: 95 percent less water usage than traditional agriculture; 100 times more productive on the same amount of land; and from harvest to shelf “within a few days”.
Another of the big-money startups, BrightFarms has so far raised more than $112 million since its establishment in 2010, according to CrunchBase.
But unlike some of the other big companies, it isn’t into aeroponics as much. It seems more interested in hydroponics, which refers to growing plants with water, or, to be more accurate, mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
Neither aquaponics nor hydroponics use soil. How each one compares in terms of quality, efficiency and profitability will probably only become clear a few years from now when we see how well these companies have done. Chances are they’ll all probably use a mix of systems.
BrightFarms has a long list of impressive-sounding partners, including Giant, Walmart and Metro Market, among others.
This company is one of many which have started up in the New York area. Strange to say it about such a new sector, but the market for vertical farming produce may be saturated – in that city at least.
Gotham Greens has so fair raised at least $45 million since its launch in 2011. It has four production-scale facilities, in New York City and in Chicago, and plans for more in several other states.
And, like BrightFarms, it’s more of a proponent for the hydroponic method, although it may well eventually mix it all up and try different approaches in different facilities.
7. Iron Ox
This company appears to use robotics perhaps more than the others, in the picking process at least, and claims to operate fully autonomous indoor farmings. It too is a proponent of hydroponics, and is a retail-oriented company.
Its products are similar to the others’ – leafy greens such as lettuce and kale or things like that. It’s one of the newer startups on the list so a lot might change.
Iron Ox has only recently started supplying its products to local markets in California. The company has so far raised over $6 million in funding, according to CrunchBase.
Most of the above companies are US-based, but there are also numerous vertical farming startups in Europe and Asia. InFarm is based in Berlin, Germany, and has so far raised approximately $35 million in investment.
The company appears to be going into the exotic herbs market, including Thai basil, Peruvian mint and such like. But it’s also growing fairly common herbs such as dill, basil, sage and so on.
It doesn’t say on its website whether it uses hydroponic or aeroponic systems, but it does claim to use 95 percent less water, which would suggest it uses at least one of those. However, it says it uses 75 percent less fertilizer, which might suggest it mixes earth-based processes into its technology. Most likely, it uses a hydropic system.
French vertical farm startup uses an aeroponic system to grow fruit and vegetables. It appears to like strawberries more than other produce. Not a bad idea since strawberries are hugely popular in France, which has a massive traditional agriculture industry.
AgriCool says its aim is to be within 20 km of its customers and offers a program called “Cooltivator”, through which customers can learn how to use its technology and possibly become producers and distributors themselves.
So far, AgriCool has more than $41 million in funding since its launch in 2015, according to VentureBeat. The company also uses shipping containers as “Cooltainers” in which its aeroponic farms can be set up.
While we couldn’t immediately find how much funding CropOne has raised, we did find that it has signed a $40 million joint venture agreement with Emirates Airlines to build what is described as “the world’s largest vertical farming facility” in Dubai, UAE.
It follows, perhaps, that it will eventually supply a lot of its produce to Emirates Airlines for its flight passengers.
CropOne, founded in 2011, claims to use just 1 percent of the amount of the water required by traditional agriculture, using a hydroponic system. It’s also big on big data, with “millions of data points collected each day” about its plants, which are mainly edible leafy greens.
Halfway through this list, and we feel the need to chill out, and what better way to relax than write about Illumitex, which supplies LED lights – light emitting diodes – which are popular among cannabis growers.
Of course, all sort of other companies uses LED lights, but Illumitex’s biggest customers are probably in the dope sector.
LED lights are claimed to use 90 percent less energy than incandescent lighting and 60 percent less than fluorescent lighting. This energy efficiency – and, therefore, lower cost – is a critical factor in the likelihood of making profits in vertical farming being quite high.
Lights supplied by Illumitex, founded in 2005, are installed in some of the world’s largest vertical farms.
Not much information is immediately available about this company, but according to the Angel investment website, it raised almost $5 million in 2014, which is a long ago in startup terms.
The company constructed a vertical farming facility in and is said to be doing something similar in the Middle East. However, without being able to find the company’s website, we can’t really say much more.
Getting even closer to the “demon weed”, this company specializes in providing water-efficient solutions for indoor cannabis cultivation, and counts more than 800 grow facilities as clients and partners.
The company appears to use hydroponic systems in the main, but given its long client list, it probably installs a variety of technologies, depending on the customers’ requirements.
Surna is based in Boulder, Colorado, one of the first states to decriminalize cannabis, now at the centre of a flourishing industry. However, the company says it can grow anything anywhere, including “potatoes on Mars”.
14. Freight Farms
Rather like AgriCool, Freight Farms manufactures a product called the “Greenery”. As its name suggests anyway, Freight Farms provides shipping containers modified as hydroponic indoor farms – the Greenery.
In fact, Freight Farms claims to be the world’s leading manufacturer of container farming technology, and provides ready-made or “turnkey” container farms. Or plug-and-play maybe.
As you might expect, these farms can be managed through smartphones. The company has a whole range of tech solutions built around its central product.
Freight Farms has so far raised almost $15 million in funding since its founding in 2010, according to Owler.
15. Voeks Inc
Voeks Inc, a US company, appears to have no connection with a similarly named company, called Voeks, in the Netherlands, Europe – that one seems to be for former employees of Shell.
Voeks Inc provides a range of services including for vertical farms, mostly in the areas of heating and irrigation systems, as well as nutrient delivery.
Its client list includes some big names, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer, which is in the process of taking over Monsanto.
SananBio provides vertical farming solutions which mainly involve the hardware, such as the lights and the platforms.
Backed by a significant scientific research and development unit, the company is one of the leading suppliers of vertical farm systems in Asia and is expanding in the US.
It emphasizes hydroponic equipment on its website, but it’s likely that it customizes its solutions depending on its clients’ requirements.
Interestingly, Sanan claims to be the largest LED chip manufacturer in the world, and we’ve already mentioned how crucial LED lights are to indoor farming.
Talking about LED lights, which basically replace sunlight, HelioSpectra is one of the leading suppliers in the indoor farming market, with a big client base from the cannabis growing sector.
But HelioSpectra aren’t all into growing cannabis, however. The company’s lights are also used to grow a variety of lettuce types, tomatoes, and peppers, among other fresh produce.
Back to a complete vertical farming systems supplier, but with a couple of slight differences. Not only because Agrilution is European – German, to be more precise – but also because it supplies what it describes as a “personal vertical farming ecosystem”.
In other words, its “PlantCube” product can be installed into the average home, taking up a similar amount of space as a dining table or large fish tank.
Perhaps similar to the product being tested by Samsung, Agrilution’s PlantCube uses a hydroponic process.
19. Altius Farms
Specializing in aeroponic systems, Altius provides what it calls “tower gardens” among its products. Just imagine a multi-level plant pot and you’ll get the idea.
The company integrates its farms into a variety of urban spaces, fromschools to urban youth centres and veterans’ homes, sometimes on rooftops, sometimes at ground level.
Altius looks more like a social venture than a private enterprise, and we couldn’t immediately find whether it has raised any equity finance.
20. Badia Farms
Vertical farms are the culmination of emerging technology in a relatively new market, so there’s bound to be many companies claiming to be the “first” or “biggest”, and of course “revolutionary”.
Badia Farms claims to be building the Middle East’s Gulf states’ first indoor vertical farm, in readiness to supply “micro-greens and herbs” to top restaurants in places such as Dubai.
The company’s multi-story greenhouse will use the hydroponic method for growing, and already boasts a prestigious client base.
Another vertical farming specialist, also with an eye on the Middle East, Intelligent Growth Solutions is actually a Scottish company.
Interestingly, IGS claims to be increasing LED efficiency by a further 50 percent, which would give it a big advantage since lighting is probably the single biggest cost in indoor farming systems.
The company also emphasizes automation in its solutions, saying that its towers and overall system uses robotics and is reducing labor costs by up to 80 percent.
FarmOne’s main facility is installed in the basement of a posh retaurant in Manhattan, the two-Michelin-starred Atera. The company has used this as a platform to launch across the US and now partners with numerous fine restaurants in many states.
FarmOne uses the hydroponic method and provides smartphone apps for managing the facility, which can either be a ready-made, off-the-shelf solution or tailor-made for the individual customer.
The company has raised at least $5 million since 2017.
23. Sky Greens
This company is headquartered in Singapore, which about the size of Manhattan and yet has huge influence in the South-east Asian economy. The city-state may have one of the busiest seaports in the world, but its residents would probably prefer to buy locally-grown leafy greens and herbs if available.
Sky Greens uses a patented system which integrates a range of hydraulics to build very tall structures – 9 meters with 38 tiers of growing troughs – which can use hydroponic or soil-based processes.
This Japanese company was one of the first vertical farming startups covered by Robotics and Automation News when we started three years ago, and the company’s latest projects include what is described as “the world’s largest plant factory”.
It has big-time partners as well, including telecommunications giant NTT, with which it jointly developed an internet of things platform for its facilities, which inevitably use artificial intelligence as well.
The company actually started in 2007, which makes one of the older vertical farming companies. The financing at the time amounted to just $1 million, which is small in comparison to newer startups.
More of a property developer than a vertical farming company. However, this company does at least attempt to negate the effect of taking over arable farming land by constructing buildings that provide indoor farming opportunities.
Among its projects is one called “Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District”, covering an area of approximately 100 hectares, located between Shanghai’s main airport and the city center. The development is said to designed to integrate vertical farming systems which could provide products such as spinach, kale, bok choi, watercress and so on.
This Belgian startup, specializing in “leafy greens”, offers ready-made solutions for indoor farming, and compares its process to “traditional” methods, in which the growth process takes 70 days, and “greenhouse”, which takes 40-50 days.
The company’s “urban” solution grows crops in just 21 days.
It also provides custom solutions to meet clients’ requirements.
The company hasn’t disclosed how much investment it has received, but there certainly has been enough for it to market and sell its solutions, and its first solutions were sold in Belgium, the US, Canada and Sweden. It also made its first sale in China last year.
The company contacted Robotics and Automation News directly and described itself as follows:
“Urban Crop Solutions develops tailor-made indoor vertical farming solutions for its clients. These systems are turnkey, robotized and able to be integrated into existing production facilities or food processing units.”
High on life
We’re not the only ones enthusiastic about vertical farming. The US Department of Agriculture is offering grants to research initiatives in the sector.
We’ve tried to concentrate on companies that provide complete solutions in this list, rather than individual components, such as lighting or watering systems and so on, although some of them are included.
However, it’s difficult to say how the above companies will evolve over the next year or two. Some of them may find that it’s more feasible for them scale down and provide components rather than complete systems.
Hopefully, they won’t disappear completely because it seems like a good idea to have indoor farms in urban areas so that healthy leafy greens are within reach for city dwellers who are currently on a diet of greasy fast food.
Perhaps the availability of fresh produce will provide a platform for new types of healthier fast food joints.
And speaking of joints, dude…
Late addition: It’s been brought to our attention by the good people at Future Crops that their vertical farm is “probably one of the largest 10 in the world in terms of growing and producing surface” – their words.
The Dutch company appears to use a combination of hydroponic and aeroponic systems to grow popular herbs such as dill, parsley, oregano and others.