This startup buys old shipping containers and turns them into urban hydroponic farms..
This 13-year-old shipping container in the middle of a field in Beijing’s Shunyi district might not be easy on the eyes, but it’s shaping up to be a godsend for the tongue. On the inside, it’s been completely renovated to house a fully automated hydroponic farm with 1,600 heads of lettuce, celery, and other leafy greens for human consumption.
The facility was designed and built by the three founders of Alesca Life Technologies, a Beijing-based sustainable agriculture startup. The team spent an entire year designing the unit for maximum efficiency and output. They just conducted their first full harvest about three weeks ago.
It sounds like an out-of-control school science experiment, but co-founder Stuart Oda says the idea has real MARKET potential, and Alesca has set out to prove it. “We want to break this notion that farming is for farmers,” Oda says. “Agriculture can be sexy.” And it does seem pretty special. The premise is that people in urban environments – both in developing and developed countries – often don’t have easy or affordable access to fresh, healthy food. Alesca will start manufacturing facilities like these and either sell or lease them out in urban areas: under bridges, on top of buildings, and in vacant lots. “We want to make good food that people can access and afford and trust.”
Oda says there’s no shortage of old shipping containers that have surpassed their usable life aboard ships to serve as the shell. The team painstakingly designed the entire LED, nutrients, and recyclable watering systems for the plants. While Alesca is still fine-tuning the price based on a projected 24-month return on INVESTMENT, Oda says one ready-to-grow unit “will cost less than a car.”
Put your money where your food goes
So far, the three founders have paid completely out of their own pockets to FUND the project, and they’ve all been working on it full-time for one year. “We’re putting our MONEY where our mouth is before we raise even a penny,” Oda says. Later this year, the team will raise a seed round from family and close friends.
“There’s a social component for what we want to do, but we’re not a charity,” he emphasizes. “We’re very serious about profitability, about manufacturing efficiency, and about not taking handouts.”
Oda says this doesn’t just save investors a bad deal should the company fail, it also prevents future investors in similar startups from getting spooked. If they were to take investor money and fail, it could spoil the industry.
Subsidies inhibit innovation
While Alesca combines a lot of cool ideas, no one aspect is exactly revolutionary. Hydroponics, for instance, predates the internet by a long shot. That begs the question, why aren’t cities already doing this, or at least something similar?
Oda blames subsidies for much of the stagnation in agriculture and other industries. Because of the MARKET distortions that subsidies cause, they can rest on their laurels without the need to progress and compete. “A lot of innovation that could have been going into agriculture had these subsidies not existed, have not.” He points to the Netherlands’ advanced automated farming systems of an example of what can be achieved without subsidies.
And on paper, Alesca’s method seems much more difficult. Oda explains, “Soil is incredibly forgiving. With our technology, the margin of error is incredibly small.” Inside the container, the space, seasons, and climate are all controlled, and the important stuff is all monitored via a smartphone app. Human interaction is minimal except for when it’s time to harvest and plant new crops. Oda says it takes just one or two people to make sure the plants are growing well. Oda says this “can’t be done from a webcam.” Someone still needs to smell, taste, and touch the plants.
None of the founders have a background in agriculture, but they did bring on a 28-year veteran farmer and hydroponic expert as an advisor and consultant. To get more ideas and assistance, Beijing-based Red Pagoda Resources participated in a hackathon this week in Bellevue, Washington, specifically to help Alesco achieve its goals. The Alesca team will be on sight to mentor and coach teams.
One small step for China, one giant leap towards space lettuce
The initial MARKET will be limited to China. Eventually, Alesca has plans to expand to North America and other cities lacking farmland. “Singapore and Hong Kong can’t do agriculture. This gives them the option of fresh local food.”
While the units will probably be available for direct sale, Alesca will prefer to lease the units and provide continued customer support because operating it requires some handholding, at least at first. But people who lease them don’t even necessarily need the land to house them. Alesca aims to find locations to group several units together (they can be stacked on top of each other, by the way), and operate the space for them. Alesca might even offer to buy whatever they produce to make sure customers get a definite return on INVESTMENT.
While the containers can’t achieve the same scale as traditional farms, Oda says much of the food cost incurred between the field and the table comes from logistics. By putting these farms in urban environments – or other harsh environments without water or good soil like deserts – those costs are cut considerably. Additionally, he says hydroponics is far more efficient than traditional farming.
“I would be shocked if we couldn’t sell [our foods] for cheaper,” he says. People would probably worry if something we put in our container is safe because it’s so cheap.”
Of course, the vegetables are quite safe. Alesca doesn’t use pesticides, chemical additives, or genetically modified plants. The safety and maintenance of the facility is also paramount. It’s designed for easy IKEA instruction-style repairs when necessary. “We built it thinking, ‘what if we had to fix it ourselves?’”
Oda says the extension of this application is space farming. NASA recently harvested the first ever lettuce grown in space.
“If we want to get off this rock, we can’t just keep making food here and sending it to space. It’s a very expensive way to feed ourselves, and very unreliable. Eventually, we need to have some sort of independent food production.”
Sustainability has to be sustainable
Obviously, there’s still a few limitations. The Alesca team wants to undergo a few more growth cycles in different seasons to determine how much they can actually grow before sales start in 12 to 18 months. “Our focus is on growing first, and not on facility sales first,” Oda says.
Oda says Alesca’s competitors (yes, other people out there are doing this) haven’t done very well because they simply promised too much. But Oda is confident Alesca’s solution is cheaper and will yield more, bigger, better tasting crops.
But the types of plants that can be grown are restricted to leafy greens – not much as far as proteins and calories go. And while the facility is technically transportable, laws on transporting live material bar users from moving the farms from city to city while plants are actually growing.
For now, the facility is still connected to the grid – it gets its water and electricity from public infrastructure. While Oda wants solar panels and better water recycling to make each unit self-sustainable, it’s not a reality as of yet.
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