Agricultural land accounts for 40% of total EU. But the growing population and increasing urbanisation are slowing eating into the fertile agricultural lands. In recent decades, Europe has decreased the total area used for agriculture while increasing yields. This has led to increased adoption of intensive farming, which is unsustainable and detrimental to the environment.
According to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report, agriculture is also an important contributor to climate change through emissions of GHGs and air pollutants. Non‑CO2GHG emissions from agriculture have declined since 1990; however, agriculture is still the largest contributor to total EU non‑CO2 GHG emissions. This is where agritech startups like iFarm come into play. Finland-based and Russia-born iFarm creates smart technologies for growing quality greens, berries, and vegetables sustainably in an urban setting, and it just raised €3.4 million ($4 million) in funding.
Farm fresh funds – seed stage
Founded by Max Chizhov, Alex Lyskovsky and Konstantin Ulyanov, iFarm provides automated indoor vertical farms for growing fresh greens, berries and vegetables. Its tech enables customers to grow different types of crops in facilities that are limited in space such as empty warehouses, factory shops, or even in basements.
The latest seed funding round was led by existing Gagarin Capital, that previously invested in the project. Other investors include Matrix Capital, Impulse VC, IMI.VC and several business angels. According to Chizhov, the company has raised €3.36 million ($4 million) in funding so far.
How will the investment be used?
“The team will use the funding to develop its iFarm Growtune tech platform that enables operations of multiple varieties of vertical farms and quadrupling the number of plants available to iFarm’s tech. In addition, iFarm will be optimising its automated production lines to reduce labour costs and complete experiments with growing strawberries, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, radish and other crops,” Chizhov tells Silicon Canals.
The company offers several automated technologies, including iFarm Growtune, Vertical farms for growing a variety of lettuce, vertical farms for growing strawberries, and iFarm Cropper. It also sells components – LED lamps of its own design and fertigation units – that can be purchased on wholesale or retail.
iFarm Vertical farm is a modular factory for urban indoor vertical farming. These vertical farms offer a combination of automated climate along with a system of “smart” power and LED lighting designed by the company that helps in faster ripening of the crops. The company also claims that this technology also allows the plants to be grown all year round, without the use of any pesticides.
A complete vertical farm set for growing lettuce includes multi-tier iron structures, equipment (LED lighting and power supplies for lamps; a fertigation unit; industrial osmotic installations for water treatment with trays and covers; IoT sensors; surveillance cameras, etc.), germination chamber, and consumables (seeds, peat, fertilizers, cups, etc.).
iFarm Cropper is a standalone module designed for retail chains, restaurants, or for private use. In order to manage these vertical farms, the startup created a SaaS-platform called iFarm Growtune.
“The Growtune tech platform for managing vertical farms includes many services that help farmers close the entire process of creating the final product. The farmer gains access to companies helping with operational management, marketing of final products, service and maintenance,” says Chizhov.
According to the company, its Growtune platform is based on an adaptive protocol that employs computer vision, machine learning, along with the data about thousands of plants collected from a distributed network of farms and also open data.
Germination of an idea into iFarm
Apart from the unsustainability quotient of industrial agriculture as well as its harmful effects on the planet, Chizhov believes that “the food is travelling a lot – an average 1kg of tomatoes travels 3000 km to be on the consumer’s plate. Climate change makes it more difficult too. Finally, 35% of food produced is wasted due to failures in logistics and transportation systems to deliver food to people in urban territories.”
“All this makes us think about a new way of organising the food production system. The idea behind iFarm is that food shouldn’t travel at all and should be available everywhere, so we are creating a system to produce food everywhere,” he adds.
Founded in 2017, iFarm claims to currently have over 50 on-going projects with clients in Europe and the Middle East for 2020. That includes an industrial vertical farm based on iFarm’s tech that is due to launch in Finland by the end of the year. Its construction was funded through the company’s internal crowdfunding platform. It has 11 industrial farms operating and under construction in Finland, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Andorra, Russia, and Kazakhstan with a total planting area of more than 11.000 m². It was recently recognised as the Hottest Ag/FoodTech Startup at The Europas Awards 2020.
The startup has offices in Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the USA. It is mostly looking for candidates based in Northwest Europe and focused on sales and marketing.
“We plan to operate 1M m² of vertical farms using iFarm technology around the world and provide technology to grow 500+ crops by 2026,” says Chizhov.
Some of the other companies working in similar areas include Freight Farms, AEssense Crowns, Intelligent Growth Solutions, Urban Crop Solutions, inno-3b, Growcer, and Alesca Life.
However, Chizhov believes, “Our business model is built on partnerships, meaning we don’t compete but cooperate with other players.”
According to him, the fact that iFarm offers a combination of software, hardware, and big data, sets it apart from the other players in the market. “Most of the iFarm competitors are concentrating either on hardware or software separately, and have a limited number of crops they support and specialised on either small productions or large farms,” he adds.
According to a report by World Resources Institute (WRI), the amount of food being produced today won’t be enough to feed everyone in 2050. “There will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth by 2050—about 3 billion more mouths to feed than there were in 2010,” it predicts.
“At the same time, we urgently need to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural production and stop conversion of remaining forests to agricultural lands,” the report suggests.
Therefore, the need of the hour is to focus on sustainable agriculture and revamp the existing food production system; something that startups like iFarm are striving to achieve.
Image Credits: iFarm