Edinburgh-headquartered agritech innovator, Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), delivers vertical farming solutions to customers across the world. The business was founded in 2013 and brings together decades of farming and engineering experience with a vision to revolutionise the indoor growing market.
David Farquhar, CEO of IGS, discusses the world of vertical farming and the importance of research and development with global partners and academia.
David Farquhar, CEO of Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS). © Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS)
What is vertical farming?
Vertical farming is the process of growing crops in vertically stacked layers within a precisely controlled environment. This process gives growers the ability to take complete control of the growing atmosphere, optimising every element from the weather and amount of light to the nutrients, ventilation and temperature.
Vertical farming is a progressive and modern process, which complements traditional farming methods so that the planet can sustain an ever-increasing demand for food.
As farmers and other growers put greater emphasis on sustainable food security and a guaranteed supply chain, vertical farming is being recognised as an increasingly valuable way to diversify and drive efficiency.
Scotland’s supportive communities
We believe that as the global population grows and market demand increases, there will be a far greater need for indoor growing, closer to the consumer and with crops produced in line with demand to improve efficiency and to reduce waste.
Scotland’s local communities are becoming increasingly involved in projects including the management of renewable energy sites and creating new models for food supplies such as refilleries and farmers’ markets. Owing to its flexibility and versatility, vertical farming fits in very well with these developments and could be owned by a community organisation or even a collective group of traditional farmers in a given area.
Scotland has several remote communities which are a long way from central distribution hubs, so typically the produce they receive isn’t as fresh as that received by people in cities. By establishing vertical farm sites within these communities, we could complement the existing infrastructure and introduce ways to diversify businesses in a climate-friendly way, including replacing imported goods with locally grown produce.
We are actively working with two Scottish island communities and with the National Farmers Union (NFU) Scotland to support the establishment of vertical farms in rural areas. These farms will provide a service to a range of local businesses and organisations such as local restaurants, grocery stores and community groups, many of which have been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and local lockdowns.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked with several local community groups across Dundee to deliver fresh produce grown at our Crop Research Centre to residents who had been severely impacted by the lockdown.
In 2018 we opened our Crop Research Centre at the globally renowned James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie near Dundee, following a longstanding relationship with the team there.
By having a base at the academic institution, we have access to a team of hugely skilled and experienced scientists and researchers. This enables us to develop our technology and to demonstrate its scalability and the opportunities it can deliver at a global level. Recent projects have explored the viability of an ever-increasing range of crops and experimenting with new methods of irrigation and fertigation.
IGS is also supported by a global network of referral partners, which help to deliver our technology into key regions. In May 2020, we announced a referral partnership agreement with international facilities management firm, International Real Estate Partners (IREP) in Dubai. The agreement will enhance the capacity for IGS to service the Middle East market and bring greater opportunity to secure and deploy vertical farming platforms across the region, we are exploring similar relationships in Europe and the United States.
We are also actively developing partnerships with property developers, energy suppliers and finance houses across the world to understand how collaboratively we can make a significant contribution to the rollout of this climate-friendly technology. The response from those we have approached has been incredibly encouraging and I am looking forward to developing this further.
The next generation
To support our future growth plans we have identified several specialist research and academic institutions around the world which focus on two disciplines linked to our research and development projects. These are crop science – which is greatly enabled by the levels of control we have over the weather and climates we generate, and best practice indoor horticulture – which can be adapted to suit the unique and agile growing environments presented by vertical farming. Coordinating these disciplines will enable us to deliver far greater productivity, yield, quality and economics to our farmers.
We are keen to support the next generation of innovators for our sector. We work closely with several higher and further education facilities across the UK and beyond through programmes like the Saltire Foundation and our own internship and work placements. For example, we worked with Aberystwyth University to develop its Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) module, which looks at a technology-based approach to food production.
IGS is also actively engaged with the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) and we currently have a KTP Associate working with us, who is exploring the potential microbial hazards that might be posed in a vertical farming environment. We also appreciate it is crucial to have hands on experience within the sector, so each year we host student interns from Entrepreneurial Scotland. As an employer participant in the organisation’s summer programme for 2021, IGS has hosted 10 Saltire Scholars who have worked across a range of disciplines and projects. A number of those who participated in the 2020 programme have now become permanent employees of IGS.
The future of IGS
IGS continues to focus on developing its technology, and also to evolve our business model to address the global demand and enabling new paradigms for our farmers: a sort of agriculture 4.0.
My vision is that within the next two to three years, we will have farms being successfully and profitably operated by our customers on six continents. We see many of these being fully integrated with traditional farming operations. In this way, part of the IGS positive impact around the world is to empower local farmers rather than us parachuting in to colonise their food supply chain.
With many countries developing national food security strategies there is a growing focus on sustainable food production. This is subsequently driving a rapid maturing of the vertical farming industry, generating significant levels of momentum from customers, consumers and investors.
IGS has committed to never grow crops for commercial sale, only for research and development. This strategic position supports the current market developments and our expansion into new regions over the next year. We are also continuing to grow and expand our global team to support the deployment of our systems to customers on six continents.
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