"We have integrated all the growing processes of vanilla production; the vertical, the active - and the industrial part at the same time. Bringing an innovative solution to agriculture that hadn't previously existed was a great opportunity ahead for the company. We want to expand the vanilla market, but not lead it," says Oren Zilberman, Co-founder, and CEO of Vanilla Vida.
Vanilla Vida, an ag startup based in Israel, aims to produce vanilla by constantly improving yield while protecting the environment and using zero carbon. As the spice is normally grown in a tropical environment, inside the jungle with a need for large amounts of water, lots of shade is needed. With a combination of green energy, a climate-controlled greenhouse, a closed environment, and shade, the company can perfectly imitate the right growing conditions. Inside the greenhouse, they're growing at least 10m2 high and cover more than 15,000 acres.
The idea came from one of the three co-founders, Shlome, who did research on the spice. He found that vanilla wasn't really cultivated yet in a CEA climate commercially. Shortly after that, he wanted to give it a shot in Israel, in a big way. Backed by VC investors, the first seed round investment came in, and things took off from there. One of their biggest investors is Kitchen Hub, the biggest food hub in Israel.
The vanilla greenhouse setup
As for clients, the company focuses F&F companies, and also chooses to work with local distributors worldwide for engaging with the gourmet market: chefs, restaurants, hotels, and patisseries. To these parties, the products are sold as dry vanilla beans, where the largest part is distributed to Europe as the largest partaker and the US after that.
Vanillin accounts for 70% of the aroma of the spice. That's the biggest focal point during the drying process. Even so, the company still tries to raise that percentage. "We understand that we can produce a high-quality product thus we want to give our customers the best value.
Boosting vanilla aromas
"We know that we have competitors globally, but we are doing things a bit differently. Our vanilla is cultivated inside the most efficient environment with fewer resources at a high density per m2. Not only do we want to be the best grower, but we also want to get the maximum efficiency potential out of our crops. It's a game of optimization in every aspect. The challenge of being a good grower is having a very sophisticated protocol as well to ensure that everything is done right," Oren explains.
After harvest, the beans are green and not ready to be used. Before the crop becomes high-quality, they have to be processed first. The right aroma is triggered through drying using a specific spectrum that is perfectly set for the process. Thanks to the smart drying process, the company is able to convert 90-100% of glycovanillin to vanillin and get three times more concentrated raw material in comparison to the market.
The controlled greenhouse
Speeding up the drying process
According to Oren, very little data is available on vanilla production since the market has been limited, products are high-priced, and it's rather difficult to grow the product. "The only difference with us is that we can grow vanilla anywhere. However, the real challenge is to dry the beans. We are applying indoor curing (drying) based on data that understand the metabolism when drying beans.
Normally, it would take four to six months to dry vanilla, explains Oren. Whereas indoors, the company can now reduce that to two months only. "We can thoroughly understand what is happening inside the beans. Besides that, we can naturally navigate the enzymes to trigger certain flavors. That's where we win and gain different aromas. Since we can offer a tailor-made product, we are currently producing the most concentrated product across the world, backed by large F&F companies' evaluation (sensory panels and analytical data). We're not here to replace the traditional farmer but to increase the whole natural vanilla demand."
Expanding through Europe
The company can bring vanilla production as close to the extracting facility as possible. As Oren explains, most vanilla is produced in Madagascar, so introducing the production side of things to other parts of the world would be perfectly suited for the company. "Demand has doubled, so you're guaranteed the products will be sold."
A SaaS solution won't be brought to market any time soon, Oren discloses. For now, the ultimate goal is to build and operate unique vanilla facilities in different locations in the world. To do that, two new locations will be built in the US and Europe to reduce the environmental impact of being close to the market. "You cannot do food manufacturing for food. You have to build it yourself in order to have an impact in the market."