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A visit to PlantLab:

Vertical farming's best kept secret?

Stacked layers with leafy greens in fully controlled units; some call it the future of farming. While opinions are divided if all that fancy lettuce will indeed solve world hunger, at PlantLab they are convinced that controlled environment agriculture can introduce groundshaking revolutions to our food system. But how viable is this relatively new industry? And what does a patent have to do with it? Highest time to figure out and pay a visit to PlantLab ourselves.

PlantLab’s indoor growing activities cover a range of various horticultural and agricultural sectors. Partnerships and joint ventures link PlantLab, still fully privately owned, to top international players in agribusiness, breeding, large scale horticultural production and propagating as well as industry leaders in food ingredients, flavours, fragrances and cosmetics.

“Controlled indoor growing changes the way how we approach our food system and enables providing consumers fresh food with distinct taste and nutrient profiles, produced in a complete circular and sustainable system”, according to PlantLab’s Marcel Kers when he welcomed us at their headquarters in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

“By tweaking the right parameters, crops can be made nutrient dense and become a medicine for example”, adds colleague Ard Reijtenbagh. “We partner with companies from various industries to explore such opportunities and jointly develop and run integrated production solutions with a financially sound business case and a concrete go-to-market strategy. This varies from consumer ready products such as lettuces and herbs to young planting material for growers; and also various crops for specific natural active ingredients for the food industry as well as improved breeding processes.”

HortiDaily was invited to take a look inside their 20,000 square meters facility to witness the PlantLab approach first hand. Here, more than 5,000 square meters of advanced indoor growing facility is currently utilized to develop 'Plant Paradise®’ recipes. The remainder area is used for technology development, production of various crops and there is still space for further expansion. 

It is obvious we have entered a facility where it is about more than only R&D and growing leafy greens and were amazed to see so many dedicated indoor vertical farming technologies and production. Without any doubt PlantLab operates one of the largest, if not the largest, most advanced commercial R&D vertical farming facility that we have ever visited. 

The PlantLab philosophy is to only introduce its solution with a clear proof of concept from a technology, production and marketing point of view with a sound financial business case. PlantLab says that they are currently the only organization in its sector to guarantee quality and production.

To achieve this, the company works in multi-disciplinary teams with disciplines such as technology, plant science, production, business analysts, supply chain and market experts. This approach in combination with the expertise of its external partners leads to complete new ways of working and products.

The reason that PlantLab and its successes have remained unknown to the broader public? The numerous partnerships and non-disclosure agreements that the company is involved with. "We are working on so many great things and it is often a pity that we can not share it with the outside world. However, we get a lot of satisfaction from our work in the partnerships. To be part of this evolution is very rewarding." Kers said.

Accompanied by large investments, the entire PlantLab team performed dedicated research and development to create what they call 'Plant Paradise’. 

"Taking into account the smallest details, we discovered that a fully closed environment enabled maximization of the plant performance by influencing more factors than just temperature and humidity. We need to control more than 80 variables in most cases. It creates new opportunities as a whole, and not just in terms of higher yields or quality." 

The method is described by Kers as modifying the complete environment where the plant is growing in. From changing the light spectra to influencing the root zone temperature and humidity at canopy level. "The combination of influencing these parameters in a controlled environment to enhance or influence crop growth is what is covered by our patent”.

And that patent is where PlantLab made headlines with, when the European Patent Office denied the opposition against the PlantLab patent on their method of controlled environment agriculture, which means it remains valid. "Unfortunately the patent has become, for some people, a too loaded topic. We can totally understand that it caused a stir, just like with any patent related to food production. The fact however is that we are open to work together with any company that likes to take advantage of our knowledge and methods", Marcel Kers said. “We do not want this to stop different initiatives around controlled environment growing in the world, on the contrary. All parties can contact us for a licence agreement.” Marcel Kers added.

Kers was eager to explain the background behind their technology and why they filed a patent on it in a period when, according to PlantLab, nobody else was investigating the same opportunities. “We just wanted to protect our investments and hard work that we started in 2005. We have been actively investigating controlled indoor growing methods for more than a decade. Everyone was still convinced that it was not even possible. Nonetheless, we continued our research on the possibilities of fully closed cultivation with the use of new technology such as LEDs. We believed in it more than anyone else at that time.

We are not here to argue or bully the vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture industry, we are here to take the whole industry to the next level".

And that next level is definitely approached at the company's headquarters in ’s-Hertogenbosch. The group invested millions to transform 20,000 square meters of vacant factory and warehouse space into an indoor production unit in combination with an indoor growing research & development centre, which aesthetics could have passed for the biggest Apple store on earth.

Apple or ASML?

"That’s quit the comparison! We have many elements in our business model like ASML in which we enable our partnerships with our solutions, but we have grown over the past years towards a model with a ready go-to-market strategy with consumer products, such as fresh vegetables.” Reijtenbagh commented.

He said that PlantLab always had the vision to develop stand alone closed growing systems that could be applied anywhere in the world and contribute to the challenges of feeding a growing world population. From research, development, production to a consumer ready product; companies that partner with them are offered a solid solution that does what it needs to do; growing a crop with a consistent amount of maximized beneficial properties. "It is our aim to develop indoor cultivation to its fullest and create new opportunities and new profitable business models. Not just in terms of growing leafy greens or other vegetables, but moreover in a broader scope. Think about nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, flavours, fragrances, cosmetics and aromas. By innovating in indoor farming we can enhance the development of new production technologies to create unique products that contribute to the environment, health and welfare. Basically, we have grown from a company providing the “next generation of growing” to a situation where it is about “the next generation of food”! When developing new technologies it is so important to interact with your market and the consumer”, according to Reijtenbagh.

Reaching out to consumers?

“Yes, growing crops without daylight in a fully closed environment is no longer a hip trend, but here to stay. We are so convinced of the beneficial properties of the product we produce and that it is the most sustainable way of production; but how to make the consumer familiar and trusted with the product and how it is being produced? This is always a challenge with new technologies.” Reijtenbagh said. “Just showing the purple light in the growing rooms will not work. Consumer panels help us, to test our products. And we also measure the content of our products. In the coming months we will be starting a large-scale program in which we reach out to consumers. We will not do this on our own, but in combination with other companies, universities and experts. We expect a lot of this. In a couple of months we hope to tell you more”.

PlantLab and its partners continue their investments. The group is currently expanding its facilities in ‘s-Hertogenbosch as well as implementing projects on a few spots in the world. Earlier, it opened an office in California to develop and support the North American market. "We have room to double our floor space in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. This illustrates the potential behind our approach", according to Kers. "We did not jump on the indoor farming market too hastily, but wanted to go to market with a proven integrated solution and substantiated decisions. That approach, which started with the first small scale trials in 2005 is still standing. Our playground might be larger, but we still start every experiment with a single plant before we increase scale. This resulted in a successful formula for our partnerships. Before our partnerships invest in a system, it is guaranteed that it works, meets the expectations and that it is commercially and financially feasible. This is exactly where we try to make the difference".

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