A pioneering vertical farming firm crowned Scotland’s most innovative tech company has the potential to transform global food production.
We are increasingly made aware of the carbon footprint of many of the foods we eat and it is not just lamb and beef which is coming under scrutiny: for example, supermarket shelves are stocked with blueberries from Uruguay and broccoli from China.
An obvious way of drastically reducing the miles food racks up en route to our fridges and dinner tables is to grow it in the UK. Eating seasonal fruit and vegetables is one option; but now we have become accustomed to choosing from a rich variety of produce on the supermarket shelves or websites, are we realistically going to limit our options once more?
Step forward Intelligent Growth Solutions. From humble origins in the mind of an Aberdeenshire farmer via university research and now £7 million of Series A fundraising, the start-up believes it has the answer to the conundrum of growing quality, high-yield crops in all weathers – and all year round.
“You could be talking about food for schools, communities, hospitals, contract catering, local artisan food producers, normal supermarket brands,” CEO David Farquhar tells BusinessCloud. “Rather than import all this stuff, we could grow it right next to the point of consumption or production. That’s what we’re talking about.”
IGS is headquartered in Edinburgh while its pilot vertical farm, where crops are grown indoors using LED lights on stacked trays, is located outside Dundee. Its crops already include various herbs, greens and salads, strawberries, seed potatoes, broccoli and root crops such as radishes, baby turnips and baby carrots.
“The way I describe it to my mates in the pub is take a field, cut it up into snooker tables, put the crops on the top and the weather on the bottom, stack them nine metres high inside a box and control it with your mobile phone,” Farquhar, a trained chef and former British Army captain, explained.
Yet the hardware is only part of the solution. IGS is working closely with globally recognised crop research facility the James Hutton Institute, which houses 300 scientists, to develop its Internet of Things and artificial intelligence capabilities. “We’ve basically now given these guys a sandbox to play in so they’re running experiments all the time,” says Farquhar.
“We can go further than lighting and sensing and cameras: the weather is made up of the sun, the wind and the rain. We’ve got the ability to completely control them all.
“Each of those three dimensions has multiple characteristics to it [such as] the colour spectrum, the intensity, the brightness, the pulsing and dimming. And each one of those individual factors then has an almost infinite number of possible values.
“The mathematics is absolutely enormous, which is why we have to use artificial intelligence to figure it out. We use machine learning to watch what happens to the crop and, on the back of that, review how effective a particular recipe of weather was and adjust it accordingly.
“And so on an iterative basis, you get to a point where you are absolutely optimally growing crops.”
Increasingly extreme weather conditions in recent years including drought and floods have on occasion wiped out entire crops while variations from year to year can also play havoc with yields, often affecting the sale price of the goods.
This may even have led to farmers growing lesser varieties of fruit and vegetables, as IGS product manager Douglas Elder explains. “We’re currently working with existing plants which are bred to deal with drought, light resistance, pest resistance and disease resistance – factors which crops in our vertical farms aren’t affected by,” he says. “Sometimes, looking back, people say things like ‘strawberries used to taste much better than they do now’. But it wasn’t because of the way they were grown; it was because that strawberry in the past was a stronger-tasting variety. However, because it was just so difficult to grow and there was so much wastage, the farmers moved to a more robust variety.
“We can start looking back at these sorts of things and figure out whether we should return to previous varieties, or new varieties altogether.”
Elder foresees a time when IGS is able to develop special brand IP for retailers – “say they want to purple vein the basil plant” – and believes it is software which will drive the business forward. “The more crops we’re growing, the more people we’re working with, the more we can start bringing the AI system side in – because what it needs is data,” he says. “When we teach it, that’s when we’ll see the acceleration of our understanding of how quickly we can optimise the crop.
“The hardware will stay the same for growers, but we can update their growing recipe software and allow them to build a business model based on proven growing data and real yields.”
Farquhar has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in business, including executive and board positions at companies around the world alongside angel investments in the likes of craft beer scale-up Flavourly.
“I took over a ‘marooned’ business in 2013 and pivoted it from HR software into a mobile app for employee scheduling. I did a million-pound turnaround on the bottom line in 100 days – literally improving it by 10 grand a day,” he says matter-of-factly of his impact as CEO of Workplace.
“I grew it at 100 per cent for a couple of years, sold it and on the back of that very, very good transaction, retired. In my mind I was 25 [years of age], but in truth I was 57 or 58!”
Speaking to me from Dubai, where he is working with that state’s government on the concept of optimising climatic conditions in places such as hospitals, airports and sports stadiums, he explained how he was tempted out of that retirement by IGS in 2017 as it had “spent four years struggling to get out of R&D mode”.
The company, which employs almost 25 people, now has hubs in Chicago and three other European countries and is looking to open a base in Southeast Asia as it prepares to export its vertical farms around the world.
After IGS topped BusinessCloud’s recent Scotland Tech 50 ranking, securing backing from both an independent judging panel and the general public, Farquhar described the accolade as an “honour” for such an early-stage company.