SINGAPORE: Singapore state investment firm Temasek has joined hands with the impact investment arm of German pharmaceutical and chemical maker Bayer to form a company that aims to develop new varieties of vegetable seeds better suited for indoor vertical farms.
The new company, Unfold, will be headquartered in Davis, California, and plans to have commercial and research and development (R&D) operations in both the United States and Singapore.
Unfold has raised US$30 million from Temasek and Bayer in its initial funding round, which will go into getting its R&D capabilities in place, said CEO John Purcell on Wednesday (Aug 12).
“Initially, Bayer and Temasek have equal ownership of Unfold, but this may change over time. Unfold has the flexibility to seek investment from other companies in the future,” Dr Purcell said.
Temasek said it is unable to provide further details on the investment when contacted.
WHY VERTICAL FARMING MATTERS
Vertical farms, which are indoors with artificial light to grow plants and technology to optimse water usage, are touted as a solution to sustainable farming in areas with limited arable land.
"Vertical farms help crops grow more quickly, enabling the reliable growth of fresh, local produce anywhere, anytime utilising less space and fewer natural resources while reducing the need for food logistics and transportation," said Bayer in a press release.
This urban farming method has been under way in land-scarce Singapore for a few years now, enabling farmers to grow produce locally as the country works towards its “30 by 30” goal to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.
Such farms are also being explored by companies in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan.
Dr Purcell, a scientist who previously headed Bayer’s vegetable R&D division, described vertical farming as an “important player in the food ecosystem” with an advantage in allowing food to be produced close to or in cities where people live.
The ability to do so is now increasingly pertinent as the COVID-19 pandemic upended farming and food supply chains in parts of the world.
“No matter where you are in the world, everyone has seen this tragic situation of COVID-19 (and) some of the challenges we have with our current food supply chains.
“Vertical farming is definitely part of the solution because you're going to be able to produce the food where people live. Anytime you can shorten your supply chain (or be) closer to where your end consumer is, that's a good thing,” he said.
“I think the ability for us to deliver value by providing solutions to make vertical farming successful is a very attractive opportunity,” Dr Purcell added, noting that a “real gap” remains currently in the seeds used by vertical farmers.
“One of the challenges of vertical farming is they’ve basically been using a lot of seeds developed for other purposes,” he said, such as agriculture in open fields, greenhouse and glasshouse environments.
“But there’s never been a company that’s 100 per cent focused on seeds that are … selected and bred for to use specifically for vertical farming and that’s what we are going to do.”
Unfold will utilise seed genetics, or germplasm, from vegetable crops and develop new seed varieties that are tailored for the unique indoor environment of vertical farms. It has entered into an agreement for certain rights to germplasm from Bayer’s vegetable portfolio, it said.
Apart from taste, appearance and other consumer preferences, the R&D company will also look at developing seeds that can mature rapidly, hence improving crop yields for vertical farmers. For a start, it will be working with crops such as lettuce, spinach, tomato and cucumber.
“As a company fully focused on the vertical farming industry, Unfold will combine leading seed genetics with the best agtech (agricultural technology) experts in order to dramatically advance productivity, flavor and other consumer preferences,” said Dr Purcell.
“We look forward to serving the market through partnerships with vertical farming operators, technology providers and others across the produce supply chain.”
SINGAPORE TO BE “COMMERCIAL CENTRE” FOR ASIA
Asked whether the company is working towards any timelines, the CEO said it remains early days in the company’s set-up and it will first have to focus on building up its R&D operations in the United States.
Singapore, its second hub, will be next in line.
“We’ll have a presence in Singapore but we’ll be looking for collaboration and other ways to do some of the testing and trialing without building facilities at first, because our first facility that we have to get up and running is here in California. Singapore will be the next step.”
Singapore will also serve as its “commercial centre” for Asia, said Dr Purcell, although he was not able to reveal when local operations might be ready or how many people it will be hiring as it remains “very early in the process”.
Mr John Vaske, head of agribusiness at Temasek, said global food challenges have prompted a rethink of traditional farming practices.
“We need to ensure secure farm-to-fork supply chains in urban settings while we also work to reduce the overall environmental impact of farming.
“Reducing food waste and improving the safety, traceability and nutritional value of food are all the more important as populations grow and demands for food expand,” he said in the press release.
Mr Jurgen Eckhardt, head of Bayer’s impact investment arm Leaps by Bayer, said innovation that offers sustainable solutions for agriculture is one of the areas that it focuses on.
“The investment in Unfold is a great example of a transformative, creative approach to developing agricultural products that meets the needs of consumers, farmers and the planet by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, supporting sustainably grown, hyperlocal production and addressing food security challenges faced by growing urban populations,” he said.