Growing vegetables in thin air might sound like something from a sci-fi film, but for British agri-tech start-up LettUs Grow, this is farming fact, not fiction.
Concerned by growing demands on natural resources and staggering levels of food waste around the world, Bristol University graduates Jack Farmer, Ben Crowther and Charlie Guy set about finding a way to streamline food production using processes that would reduce waste, slash inputs and increase yields.
Combining their expertise in engineering and plant science, they decided to make use of a technique called aeroponics — a vertical farming process that grows crops without soil, and without the system used in traditional hydroponic-based vertical farms that fully submerge roots in water.
It may be a modern method of producing food, but it’s one that has traditional farming knowledge and expertise very much at its heart, says Farmer, co-founder and operations lead.
“We definitely don’t want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to growing crops,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is help growers do what they’ve always done, but in a more streamlined, productive and sustainable way.”
Understanding where to innovate
Having decided to set up an agricultural business in 2015, the trio started by analysing how inputs are applied to horticultural crops, and how it might be done differently to increase production.
Keen to understand the technology behind growing crops indoors and in greenhouses, they set up a small-scale hydroponics and aeroponics business to learn the science.
As well as enabling them to talk to growers about their experiences and meet others across the supply chain, the business gave them the chance to learn about existing technology — and where its flaws were.
“We wanted to properly understand the best systems at the time before we started looking at what improvements could be made to that technology,” Farmer says.
“It gave us a great perspective on where to innovate, and we were able to bring a novel perspective to the challenges growers were telling us about by combining biological and technological solutions.”
The result was LettUs Grow’s aeroponic system, which applies a nutrient-rich mist directly on to crop roots suspended in the air.
Sharing across the supply chain
As well as helping to reducing water use by as much as 95%, the technique ensures inputs go directly to where a plant needs them most, helping to increase growth rates by 70% compared to traditional hydroponic systems.
To ensure growers get the best results from aeroponics, the trio also developed a software system called Ostara. Used in conjunction with LettUs Grow, it helps to streamline crop management and improve information sharing across the supply chain.
“We were able to bring a novel perspective to the challenges growers were telling us about by combining biological and technological solutions”
“The first thing Ostara does is remove unnecessary tasks,” Farmer says. “Farms like these manage a high throughput of crops with a limited number of workers, so streamlining operations is incredibly important.
“We track all of the crops as they go through the facility, and on the back of that we can implement a system that controls everything from irrigation and lighting to nutrients and the environment.
“Because we have that closed-loop control, we can automate much of the facility in line with each crop’s individual needs.”
From a grower perspective, this removes the need for a range of manual jobs, as well as data entry, and enables the facility to be more traceable, he adds.
“We know exactly what processes the crop has been through, and that helps the food supply chain know everything it needs to know.”
A workable solution for existing systems
In hindsight, creating two pieces of agri-tech at once was a challenge they were perhaps naive to take on, Farmer says.
But approaching the same problems from two different perspectives meant that when they did find solutions, they knew they were on the right track.
“Making hardware is difficult, especially when you’re trying to make a software start-up alongside,” he says. “It wasn’t just a case of getting the electronics right, we had to understand the nutrients the plant needed, and in the early days we did wonder what we’d bitten off.
“But it has resulted in a company that’s much more innovative and effective because we’ve worked through the complexities and built a diverse team to help us manage it.
“Once you reach the point where your understanding overtakes those complexities, then it’s a very exciting place to be.”
Given that a number of horticultural businesses had already invested in hydroponics, introducing a new technology could have been a further challenge, says Farmer. But by developing a system that would easily slot into existing ones, he says they were able to prove LettUs Grow could improve productivity with minimal effort, garnering industry support and investment totalling more than £3m along the way.
“We aren’t looking for growers to retrofit their whole facility — we have a product that can be transposed into their existing systems to help them scale up production,” he explains. “Operationally there’s minimal difference to a hydroponic bench.
“Our approach has very much been around working collaboratively with growers to show them how it is possible to scale up this system and get results.
“It’s that transparency and collaborative approach that’s got people excited about what we’re doing and brought them along with us.”
Growing with growers
As well as developing partnerships with traditional horticultural growers, LettUs Grow is currently developing links with new entrants of varying sizes across the UK, and has plans to branch out into Europe early next year.
“That’s something that’s very different to others in the field, as so many investors are developing technology with a view to becoming growers themselves,” Farmer says. “It can be more appealing to investors because many indoor farming start-ups are trying to compete with existing growers for market share, but we don’t want to lock growers out — we want to work with them, no matter what size they are.”
In future this could mean offering turnkey growing systems to growers ranging from wholesale producers down to restaurant-level growers, he adds.
“We know how invaluable existing growers’ knowledge is, and we know that the best results come through partnerships, so we collaborate wherever possible,” says Farmer. “It’s about having honest and clear relationships, and what’s nice is that our values fit that. If we’re going to share the benefits of aeroponics then it’s important we all work together.”
A version of this article first appeared on the NatWest agri-business hub