This interview details aponix, an indoor farming company based in Germany. The interview is with Marco Tidona, inventor of the aponix.
What is the origin story of aponix?
It all began with an unexpected moment of inspiration during AgTechWeek in New York back in 2015. There, I had the pleasure of meeting numerous urban farming enthusiasts whom I affectionately refer to as "urban farming heroes." Their passion ignited something within me, prompting me to return to Heidelberg with a newfound drive.
Back home, I decided to rent a basement space from the city council with the intention of creating an aquaponics farm. As I delved into the project, it grew larger than initially envisioned. Eventually, I encountered a challenge: I ran out of plant space and started looking for suitable equipment to organize and plant my crops. To my dismay, most people were using two-dimensional racks for this purpose, but I wanted to approach the lighting differently.
Recognizing the early stage of the industry and inspired to innovate, I resolved to invent something entirely new. My first step was to design a larger-diameter tower to play with different possibilities. As the ‘tower’ prototype using industrial yoghurt jars evolved, I realized that using larger pieces required more precise modularization. I also wanted to coin a new term, since the ‘tower’ was bigger than the others, it looked more like a barrel. This marked the inception of my product development journey for the Vertical Barrel or 3D-NFT version one.
Could you share some insights about yourself and how is the current market environment influencing the company, and what are the key challenges aponix is facing?
The company is just me in very close cooperation my second-generation plastics manufacturer based closeby in Germany. My approach involves embodying the essence of German engineering – meticulous, ingenious, and precise. I consistently prioritize using the finest and optimal materials, actively avoiding the temptation of cheaper alternatives. By opting for high-quality materials, I not only enhance the longevity of the products but also provide double UV resistance by using pure ASA, resulting in pieces that can endure usage for 10+ years. This dedication to craftsmanship sets my work apart and makes it truly one-of-a-kind. Throughout my journey, I have remained laser-focused on refining the product and ensuring its excellence.
The apparent challenge is evident: I failed to implement an effective sales strategy, resulting in me merely selling individual pieces. The crux of the matter lies in my focus solely on creating components. These versatile components can be utilized for various setups, whether they are small-scale applications in homes, kindergartens, or schools, or for constructing moderately sized facilities—not the extremely large ones, but rather spaces spanning up to 1000 square meters or, at most, an acre.
This is a modular and versatile concept that always requires an initial brief introduction to understand what it entails. It is important to clarify that I am not the one who will be constructing the farm. Instead, that responsibility lies with an experienced turnkey planning engineer who will integrate various components such as irrigation, fertigation, market strategy processes, automation, HVAC, and other essential elements to ensure production works smoothly and reliably. My expertise is not in these areas even though I understand the properties of such farming setups.
I prefer to focus on what I call "urban farming components." These components are designed to optimize organization of growth space and accommodate various methods of plant cultivation especially in co-creative urban farming setups, ranging from small to large plants. It is crucial to differentiate this approach from the professional horticulture equipment, which is much more specialized and not usable nor accessible to citizen gardeners.
What is unique about aponix compared to competitors?
I have created a very modular and alternative design that maximizes available grow space without any intervening layers like with setting up racks. Picture it as a large barrel constructed entirely from LEGO pieces. The system is based on repeatable components that serve as the foundation. You assemble six of these pieces to create a single ring segment or level, and then stack as many levels as desired. This setup allows for a seamless chain of units to facilitate liquid distribution.
The versatility of the system is vast. For instance, I've developed a Netafim adapter so you can use professional irrigation equipment for different irrigation purposes. You could also use an old sprinkler or pressure-less irrigation with different available top elements for the Vertical Barrel. There are pieces designed for the top and others for the bottom.
One possibility is the "Tower Garden" mode, where you have a closed base functioning as the reservoir with a submersible pump. Alternatively, I've created a multifunctional lid that can serve as the top of one unit and also fit inside another base -my Lid Base at the bottom, allowing for external reservoir use with drainage capability. Additionally, you can hang the units, place them on a rotating base for easy liquid collection with a gutter, or install them on rails. It is always amazing to see creative users do these setups. I love how the pragmatic gardener thinks here.
In essence, this design allows you to build vertical cylinders of varying heights and chain them. It's an efficient way to organize your net pots in any farming, growing, or educational setting according to your preferences and needs.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
When comparing it to gutter systems or 2D NFT systems, the difference lies in the density of plants per square meter. In traditional greenhouse setups without aisles, you typically have around 25 plants per square meter. However, by using Vertical Barrels that match the height of the workers (around one meter 70 to one meter 80), with 120 or 140 plants per unit, and allowing three square meters of space per unit, there is ample room for air movement, sunlight, and various processes. This innovative approach results in approximately 60 plants per square meter, making it possible to utilize natural sunlight effectively due to its unique shape.
As a part of this system, I've developed a useful invention called the "Plug Pot," which serves as a sustainable alternative to standard single-use 2-inch plastic net pots – that by the way can also be used independently in any other system that uses 2” net pot grow spaces. The Plug Pot is reusable and practical in cleaning and it comes with an insert for a metal trellis, allowing for the growth of vines, fruits, and other crops. I've observed cannabis flowers successfully resting on these trellises, demonstrating the potential for diverse crop options using this method.
What are some of the drawbacks of the system?
In various vertical systems, such as selling produce in supermarkets, a common issue arises due to the lack of perfectly uniform plants. These plants exhibit both gravy-tropism and photo-tropism, causing them to grow at angles as they seek light and resist gravity. Consequently, each plant develops a slight bend and possesses unique characteristics influenced by factors like height or position of the grow space, temperature there, and the CO2 conditions. Achieving absolute uniformity becomes challenging, although skilled individuals can come close by maintaining consistent conditions.
One significant drawback of these systems is the necessity for careful irrigation. Some users have encountered problems with overwatering, often using excessive amounts – up to ten or even a hundred times more water than required. I recommend just taking a quick look into the hand book as a total beginner. Surely you can use any equipment in multiple non-working ways. Utilizing methods like placing a fire hose in an NFT channel or flooding the system with water, like in the case of mine barrels, has proven at best ineffective. This is because specific irrigation cycles and amounts of liquid are recommended to ensure optimal plant health. Instead of constant irrigation, a timer-based approach is used, and the precise amount of liquid per hour is crucial for successful results.
What is the actual level of production on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis?
I understand that many people are fond of using key performance indicators (KPIs) like how many pounds per day per squaremeter, but personally, I always decline to employ them just to bare and very modular equipment. My reasoning comes from witnessing individuals attempting to cultivate produce without having true proficiency in it. And there are many more factors contributing to the results. The outcomes I've observed range from complete failure, yielding zero or unsellable products, to extraordinary success, meeting or exceeding expectations. Success in these endeavors heavily relies on providing the right stable conditions and adequate space for growth, especially when dealing with the complexities of three-dimensional systems like vertical setups. Unlike the relatively uniform conditions of 2D production, where proper ventilation can be easily manageable with standard horizontal fans, Vertical Barrels require more thinking and understanding from the perspective of all the possible plant positions.
Rather than quantifying my results in terms of pounds or specific metrics, I prefer to focus on the number of growth spaces and separate this KPI from the skills of the grower and the conditions. The success of the harvest depends greatly on the grower's abilities and experience. I believe that embarking on such agricultural endeavors requires at least a year of practice, and it's beneficial to have experienced professionals guiding and overseeing the process.
What are the most common crops that people grow using this system?
The predominant vegetation is leafy greens, with two specific positions for stacking levels in Vertical Barrels. Opting for the highest density – 12 plants for each additional 15 centimeters of height entails cultivating tall plants like basil or parsley. Conversely, for wider or rounder plants like butterhead lettuce, a different stacking position with 6 plant spaces per level can be utilized. This method involves blocking out every second grow space. However, this creates additional space to cultivate a larger crops, and many people use this technique for creative purposes or mix smaller young plants with larger more mature plants to still use the high density.
This approach is also utilized by some cannabis growers. Of course you need to really know your crop and also select the ideal smaller cultivar. When I see such images, I can't help but appreciate the artistry involved - skillfully pruned and trained the plants, guided to grow beautiful flowers at the perfect height for support on the trellis. This level of expertise demonstrates their deep understanding of the crop, which is crucial when using innovative and use exotic growing equipment.
How much is the investment to get the system up and running?
The preferred approach is to simply purchase by the parts list. However, if you decide to assemble your grow space using a single Vertical Barrel, the required materials will amount to approximately 500 Euros plus shipping. It's crucial to use high-quality materials ensuring they are highly UV resistant. Our materials have a significantly longer lifespan compared to regular NFTs. Therefore, it is essential to factor in logevity and the final remaining value of the raw material, which can be recycled indefinitely due to their non-composite nature. It actually incentivizes recycling. So please do not throw it into the ocean, ok.
Do people typically use grow lights or are they most often in a greenhouse or both?
It's essential to monitor and know the light levels carefully. If you notice any deficiency in natural light, you should supplement it. Since you're accommodating a higher number of plants in the same area, it's crucial to ensure an adequate total light supply. To achieve this, calculate your daily lighting integral (DLI) for all the growing spaces used by the plants. This way, you can anticipate and address any potential issues with the plant's growth at an early stage, avoiding any setbacks caused by insufficient lighting. It is simple to avoid. Being proactive and measuring in advance will help you make informed decisions and optimize your operation’s performance.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started the company?
For all startups and entrepreneurs, things often take much longer than anticipated. This is a common experience. I collaborate with a US partner. Our goal was to introduce my Young Plant Tray Set to the European market through Amazon's FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) program.
However, the process was far from smooth. It took us a whole year before we could finally publish the article and make our product available. Along the way, we encountered numerous unexpected challenges and encountered some bizarre and frustrating situations setting things up. This made us realize that what we had initially thought would take just a month turned into a much lengthier process. Growing the business and getting everything set up took ten times longer than we had anticipated. And this can wear you out or invalidate your ambitious business plan. And that was not the only thing that just took much longer than expected.
The key lesson I learned from this experience is to be patient and prepared for delays and obstacles, plan things redundantly. When dealing with new ventures, it's crucial to take your time and set realistic expectations. Your businessplan is sometimes hopeful fiction. So, if you're an entrepreneur or starting a new business, don't rush, be patient, and understand that unforeseen circumstances may arise any time.
How can people connect with you or learn more about aponix?
I'm very active on LinkedIn, Marco Tidona. If anyone is interested in learning more about it, I conduct video demos regularly. Please book a demo to ask all your technical questions. During these demos, I take about five minutes to explain the various elements, and their interactions, and showcase numerous examples from users (though I can't display these examples publicly due to their private nature but they exist).
For those curious to delve deeper, our website offers a dedicated section for each solution. Where I provide comprehensive explanations about the different elements and how they function together. Additionally, they will find a wealth of technical PDFs with detailed measurements and material information. As they scroll down the website, they will come across intriguing example images and galleries to further illustrate our offerings. So, feel free to explore and visit our website to learn more.
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