Tech entrepreneurs set their sights on urban farming

In the workshop of clean technology startup incubator Greentown Labs outside of Boston, there’s a piece of equipment you would not have found a few years ago: an indoor garden.

The garden is a testing lab for Grove Labs, a company designing an appliance to grow leafy green vegetables indoors. Its two founders, who conceived of the business while students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envision people’s homes having “groves,” or spots to grow their own fresh food. The company, which recently raised $2m in “seedling” funding, says it intends to help people grow food productively at home using sensor-controlled gardens and smart phone apps.

The Grove Lab founders are among a growing number of entrepreneurs who are getting a green thumb. They’re using information technology and new lighting techniques to advance the field of “building-integrated agriculture,” or growing food in structures such as warehouses, rather than greenhouses.

Proponents contend that indoor farming and urban farming are necessary to feed a growing global population. Urbanites could potentially purchase locally grown, pesticide-free food year-round, lowering emissions associated from tractors and shipping products. Producing food indoors also means that consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters and that farmland could be restored to ecosystems, such as forests, that could absorb greenhouse gases. Growing food indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield, according to the Association for Vertical Farming.

So far, indoor farms still contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods. And they tend to use more electricity. But businesses are starting take advantage of new technologies, including energy-efficient LED lighting and automated systems, to bring down costs. As these technologies become standardized, indoor farming will make sense in more locations, says Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, which builds custom indoor farms for professional growers.

“There are lots of interesting technologies that will come out to automate indoor farming and make it even more efficient than it is now,” Sykes says. “Companies are getting into it because they see a niche they can fill.” Over time, he predicts robots will seed and harvest food and software systems will control every aspect of production, from growing conditions to sales.

Cultivating plants in an enclosed space, obviously, is nothing new. With hydroponics, plants grow in nutrient-enriched water, rather than in soil outdoors. Some growers use variations on this basic approach to improve productivity.FarmedHere in Chicago, for instance, grows greens, such as lettuce and basil, using aquaponics, in which the waste from farmed fish is used as fertilizer for plants in a closed system. With today’s plumbing and filtration systems, these combined systems can recycle virtually all their fresh water and avoid the use of pesticides, the company says. Some of the most innovative vertical farming projects are using aquaponics, which proponents say allows them to generate more food in less space.

New technologies allow indoor farms to improve the productivity of existing hydroponic growing methods. Atlanta, Georgia-based PodPonics has developed a system to grow greens in shipping containers using custom-built software that controls when water cycles through its plant trays and nutrients are applied. It also schedules the proprietary LED lights to run during off-peak hours to save money on electricity bills, says Adam Johnston, a high-tech farmer at PodPonics.

The company ships its produce, which is grown in dozens of its shipping container-size “pods,” to local supermarkets, which keeps transportation costs relatively low. About 40% of the cost of food is associated with transportation, Johnston says.

To expand to other locations, the company would build farms near those end markets. “We can go to a place like Dubai where they can’t grow food,” Johnston says. “We have the technology to make that happen.” Another company called Freight to growers to encourage local food production, rather than selling food itself.

LED lights, which are energy-efficient, have come down in price to the point where more farmers can replace traditional grow lights to save money on energy. The light from LEDs can also be precisely controlled, including the amount of light that’s applied, how evenly it’s spread on a plant, and even the portions of the light spectrum that maximize plant growth. By fine-tuning growing conditions, farmers can boost productivity and adjust light output to encourage different traits in food, says Paul Gray, senior horticulture scientist at lighting startupIllumitex.

In one case, a vertical farm was able to more than double its plants’ productivity, Gray says. “We get calls every day, everyone from people who want to grow more at their house to investment firms who want to start a company by taking over an abandoned warehouse and converting it to an indoor grow space,” he says.

Even with more high-tech growing gear, though, indoor farmers face commercial challenges. Food is a low-margin business and indoor growers have higher operating costs – after all, they’re paying for light to grow food rather than relying on the sun. That’s why many producers sell their goods as premium organic products to high-end restaurants and supermarkets, which is a small market in the global food system. Also, indoor growing is largely limited to greens and mushrooms farms and isn’t suitable for some other crops grown outdoors.

It remains to be seen whether indoor farming can displace a significant portion of the current food production or serve consumers who can’t afford more expensive produce. But many indoor-farming entrepreneurs say their technology can serve to diversify the current food system, allowing food to be consumed where it’s produced. “There has to be a fundamental change in how we grow food,” PodPonics’ Johnston says. “Growing food and shipping [it] across the country or the world doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Martin LaMonica is a Boston-based reporter covering energy, technology, business and the environment. Follow him @mlamonica