GIST Initiative: Vertical Future
The main objective of Vertical Future, the London-based AgTech company that was founded in 2016, is to improve overall population health and to reduce food and health-related inequalities. Vertical Future delivers on this by using technology and data to build a better, smarter food system.
Food security and the overall sustainability of our food system have become hot topics in recent years, and even prior to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the fragility of our global food system was becoming apparent. We live in a world where pesticide-use is universally accepted (even in organic produce), supply chain-related waste is sometimes as high as 50%, and in some countries, food-related transportation accounts for approximately one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Farming practices are also invariably labour-intensive and place a heavy reliance on local or overseas, seasonal labour.
There are two major limiting factors that are driving much of this: location and climate. Using traditional methods of growing fresh produce places limitations on what can be grown, when it can be grown, and where it can be grown, creating a misalignment with demand. In regions like the Middle East, where there is little or no arable land in many areas, there is little choice but to rely on global supply chains. However more broadly, even in countries where there is sufficient arable land, there is still a significant reliance on food imports. This is because consumers are broadly unwilling to be driven by seasonality and expect year-round supply of food – across many food groups and categories.
Controlled-environment-agriculture (CEA) is a specialised sub-sector of vertical farming and involves the growing of produce indoors, under controlled conditions. This allows for produce to be grown year-round, much closer to end-consumers, and in particular locations that would otherwise not be possible due to climate restrictions. The added benefit of growing indoors using technology is that crops can be safeguarded from pests and disease, meaning no pesticide use, and importantly, the controlled conditions allow for a significant increase in yield per m3, lower water consumption (of up to 95%) when compared to a conventional farm or even a glasshouse.
An emerging market leader in the CEA space, Vertical Future has brought together both automated technological hardware advances and smart-learning systems – all designed in-house and manufactured in the UK – to create a compelling proposition for the global food market. Vertical Future’s hardware solution is fully automated, uses up to 60% less energy compared to other vertical farms, and provides a sophisticated nutrient delivery and lighting system, which involves five types of LED lighting. The hardware is supported by a software system (Diana), which works in tandem with thousands of sensors to monitor individual crop growth and optimise production at a granular level, including the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking. With no need for pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and minimal human interaction, Vertical Future offers a product that goes ‘beyond organic.’
Vertical Future’s R&D Facilities in London
Founder and CEO, Jamie Burrows said: “We provide an advanced, intelligent, end-to-end system which means greater output and healthy, ethical crops – for both food and pharmaceutical production. Exploitation of land, loss of biodiversity, and overuse of the earth’s natural resources are damaging to our environment and CEA offers one long-term solution. Our approach takes CEA a giant leap further, adopting a holistic approach that goes well beyond technology.”
The Vertical Future system was launched in late Summer 2020 and since then, has attracted interest from four continents, with large-scale design and build projects now stretching from the UK through to Italy, the Middle East and Singapore. This includes several key strategic joint ventures and vertical integration with a major UK food brand, focused on efficient food production and nutrient density. Vertical Future also has a ‘Container Lab’ offering (a vertical farming system housed within a 40ft shipping container) and has already begun to deploy these across the globe.
Research also forms a core part of Vertical Future, with the company’s R&D facilities in London used to deliver on different (funded and non-funded) collaborative research projects. These include using the system’s advanced lighting to alter the shape, size, flavour, and BRIX content (which drives sweetness) of strawberries; working with a phytopharmaceutical company to produce root extract for use in the production of a respiratory drug; and working with a major seed breeder to identify genomic markets in heirloom salad varieties.
Vertical Future is on an exciting trajectory, experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, which is, according to its CEO, only likely to increase given the issues the company set out to solve. “In five years, we not only expect to have more than 100 active production sites (of different sizes) across the globe” said Jamie. “We also want to be able to show that we have brought about meaningful change and impact. Whether this means reducing food-related inequalities, improving health, or removing carbon from the supply chain, we want to be at the forefront of this movement.”
Vertical Future is currently expanding into new sectors and geographies across the globe, as well as applying to be a B-Corp certified company, aligned with its underlying principles and activities. To support this cause Vertical Future is looking for like-minded partners to further accelerate expansion and market penetration.