Global agriculture today consumes 40% of the total land area and 70% of the fresh water reserves to feed the earth’s 8 billion people. This is neither sustainable nor efficient – especially given the steady growth of the earth’s population. ETH spin-off Yasai invented Integrated Vertical Farming to provide food for everyone without destroying the earth’s precious resources.
An interview with Yasai co-founder Mark Zahran.
Mark, tell us about Integrated Vertical Farming.
In a nutshell, Integrated Vertical Farming is a form of farming that finds its roots in urban areas, where people have sought ways to produce high-quality, fresh, local food all year-round using less water and land. Integrated Vertical Farming is based on a circular economy. We are reinventing the concept of urban farming. By recycling and reusing water, CO2 and bioenergy, we can use the waste of cities to promote growth of plants in our Vertical Farms. Furthermore, we are reactivating old industrial halls, thereby creating new jobs and adding value. Integrated Vertical Farming aims to bring together technological and social innovation in a way that is beneficial to the planet and society alike.
How did you discover your passion for vertical farming?
I am lucky to have travelled extensively. Over time, I noticed something quite amazing: other countries have more diversity in fruit and vegetables than we have here in Switzerland. These fresh and local products are often more flavourful than ours. Many people in Switzerland are unaware that the tomatoes we eat are not grown for the best taste or the best nutrients, but to meet the criteria of best transportability. This makes no sense to me. After reading books about vertical farming and studying architecture at ETH Zurich, I reckoned that it should be possible to improve vertical farming by using clever building techniques and by considering local conditions. This is how the idea of Integrated Vertical Farming was born. It is applicable for most fresh foods such as berries, vegetables, herbs, and even medicinal plants.
What is the primary goal of Integrated Vertical Farming?
At Yasai, we use vertical farming to reduce transport emissions and costs. We also use it to build a circular economy for growing fresh food. For example, we capture and use CO2 to boost plant growth and we reuse water and its nutrients. Furthermore, we use our own organic waste (like inedible plant roots) to generate energy. LED lighting technology also reduces energy consumption. Finally, Integrated Vertical Farming is less reliant on skilled labour; in fact, automation is one of its success factors.
Where do you plan to install Integrated Vertical Farms? Are there limits or conditions that are not ideal for your solution?
Our solution uses a combination of state of the art technologies to create vertical farms best suited for each setting. This works in the desert, in cold areas, in cities and even in space. Basically anywhere with a lack of fertile soil or fresh water. In very hot areas, like the Middle East for example, we also use solar panels to generate energy.
What are your goals for 2020?
We are about to close our seed-funding round to create the first Integrated Vertical Farm in Switzerland and are very grateful for the tremendous support we have been given. We would like to discuss our services with local retailers to enable them to offer more sustainable, fresh, healthy, and local food to their customers. We also aim to expand our team with plant scientists, business developers and agronomists to run the first farms.
Yasai is a globally oriented company. We have already a number of cooperation partners with whom we are planning projects in the Middle East, Latin America and in Scandinavia. Together we can grow more with less.
ETH spin-offs: facts and figures
Since 1996, 437 spin-offs have been founded at ETH Zurich. ETH transfer, the technology transfer office at ETH Zurich, supports recognized ETH spin-offs in the founding process and in their first years of operation.
With the help of the Pioneer Fellowship Programme, funded by the ETH Foundation, young researchers can develop innovative products and services based on their scientific work at ETH Zurich. A Pioneer Fellowship is awarded to young ETH entrepreneurial minds intending to develop a highly innovative product or service to be exploited commercially and/or for the benefit of society.