This interview details Vertical Future, a vertical farming technology and data company, based in the UK. The interview is with Jamie Burrows, Chief Executive Officer & Founder of Vertical Future.
What is the origin story of Vertical Future?
Vertical Future started in 2016 through the construction of a small vertical farm in Southeast London, very close to Greenwich. My wife Marie-Alexandrine and I founded the company on a very limited budget and went ‘all in’ through a debenture on all our assets via a bank loan – this was a stressful period, to say the least. The 150 m2 farm utilized standardized Dutch growing technologies – many of which are still used today – and those first few years were a real grind.
Growing and supplying restaurants, homes, and small retailers required night shifts, six days a week, and at the time our two children (now three) were both under four. I’d work on the farm at night (usually with one or two staff) and Marie would support the delivery team from 6am when I’d come home to sleep. In the afternoon I’d then wake up and head into Central London to meet with Chefs and find new business. I’d love to say it was a very enjoyable, fulfilling time of our lives, but that would be quite a reach.
In 2018, two years into the business, we were just about into profit and received just over £4 million of investment to support in scaling. However, at this point we decided to change the focus of Vertical Future by moving away from being a grower and moving towards technology. Through our years of operation, we had done very well to eventually turn a profit and compete in what was a very difficult market, but at the same time we had identified so many issues with the technologies we were using. Whilst we knew it would be a monumental task to start over, we took the decision and decided to take the jump.
Today, Vertical Future is a very different business. We are almost entirely horizontally and vertically integrated from a technology and manufacturing standpoint, respectively. We simply focus on designing and building the best technologies and accumulating the best data to advance the sector. Unlike our earlier days, we aren’t a “grower brand”, like AeroFarms or Bowery, for instance. Whilst we can’t speak for the entire industry, we find that many of these types of businesses are typically very asset heavy, focus most activities on growing, and place a lot of emphasis on the brand, selling primarily in retail settings. Some have been successful – others haven’t. In comparison, aside from our technology and data focus, we don't own the assets for the farms we construct. Instead, people pay us to build them or funds step in. Occasionally, we may take a minority equity position, but only if we believe there is a strategic alignment. In such cases, we can also offer to provide operational services through an Operating & Maintenance (O&M) contract.
Despite a tough year for the sector overall, demand for our products and services continues to grow. Our farms are continuously expanding in size, and we are also expanding our operations into various sub-sectors. This includes not only vertical farming but also projects related to alternative proteins. We’ve also successfully undertaken projects involving animal fodder, as well as projects involving pharmaceuticals. These endeavors have been incredibly fascinating, and we are proud to have received close to 10 Innovate UK grants in recent years, which is a remarkable achievement for our plant science team, demonstrable of the credibility of our systems and expertise. Among these grants, we have even secured a cross-border collaboration with a Singaporean enterprise.
We have constructed eight farms in the UK, and in addition to those, we are currently constructing a further farm in Singapore. Furthermore, we have been diligently working on establishing farms in the Middle East, which will soon become a reality. Our perspective on the market has shifted, and we believe it is crucial for the industry to evolve from being a niche market that charges exorbitant prices for produce grown in small farms, such as microgreens. Instead, we aim to develop a robust sector where we can build scalable farms with reduced capital expenditure (CAPEX) to grow various products. While not every product will be feasible for this approach, our goal is to achieve price parity and offer substitute products that would otherwise be imported. This transformation is essential for the sector's progress. Selling products at a premium will always have its place for those who desire it, but it fails to fully address the issue of food security and can contribute to socio-economic disparities. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where protein-rich crops become economically viable in not only our vertical farming systems, but across the sector more broadly, and we’ve made some great strides in that area already.
We employ approximately 80 staff members, consisting of 10 plant scientists, around 40 hardware engineers, 15 software engineers, and the remainder handling management and operations. Our company is a member of the World Economic Forum, Listed as a “Global Innovator”. We rank prominently on the food tech 500 list and in 2023, ranked #47 overall and #1 if you consider that we are an end-to-end vertical farming technology and data company. One notable aspect of our business model is that we manufacture around 60% of our systems in-house and are pushing towards 100%. This decision allowed us to possess substantial intellectual property for our systems and confidently stand behind their quality and long-term maintenance regimens. Moreover, we have de-risked the supply chain, taking significant strides forward by directly sourcing materials like steel and LED components from commodity markets and handling the manufacturing process ourselves.
We can expedite the deployment of our farms and foster rapid innovation while gaining greater control over the maintenance of these long-term assets. This has marked a significant milestone for us, with much of our progress attributed to our previous £22.5 million Series A in February 2022 (the largest Series A to date in Europe for our company type) and our ongoing Series B, which has been progressing successfully, despite turbulent and skeptical capital markets. Although we haven't extensively explored the U.S. market for several reasons, our primary focus has been on the UK, mainland Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.. Eventually, we do plan to explore the U.S. market, and we are also considering the Canadian market as a potential opportunity.
I believe it is crucial to present a more comprehensive global perspective instead of fixating on a small group of companies that have recently garnered significant attention and funding in the media, proclaiming the viability of vertical farming. I don't believe this narrow focus, which ranks companies (and success) primarily on the amount of capital they have raised, provides the right approach in any market, but especially in vertical farming (as recent events have shown us). Currently, there is clearly a shift in investment strategies. Previously, there was a heavy emphasis on venture capital (VC), treating vertical farming as a lucrative, short-term opportunity to jump on the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) bandwagon and cash out within two to three years. However, this approach was entirely unrealistic. Now, we are witnessing the entry of different types of investors who view the market from a long-term infrastructure asset perspective, like how they evaluate solar or other industries. I believe this shift indicates a positive direction for the market.
Do the investors entering the market have a long-term perspective on vertical farming? Are they strategic corporate entities? What observations can you share regarding this trend? Considering the evident decline in venture capital availability, where do these investors originate from in terms of their position within the ecosystem?
The investment landscape comprises various entities, including family offices, infrastructure funds, and knowledgeable buyers. In certain cases, I have witnessed actual end buyers, such as retailers, expressing interest in entering this space. These stakeholders analyze market dynamics effectively. Consequently, it is advisable to adopt a long-term perspective of 10 to 20 years when considering investments in this field.
The farms you are currently developing are not container farms instead, they have a larger footprint.
Our farms are continuously expanding in size. These farms are primarily established within industrial units. Although we have implemented container farms for two specific customers, their usage is limited to specific business models. For instance, one customer was a research and development organization in the UK. Their requirements didn't call for a large-scale site, and they didn't require end consumers either.
The other customer, based in London, is Crate to Plate, an innovative company focused on supplying high-end restaurants and home consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for more local, fresher produce. They specialize in selling premium products such as microgreens and larger vegetables at higher prices. In general, we see the future of vertical farming being centered on large-scale commercial farms, situated in peri-urban and rural areas where land is cheaper and energy infrastructure can be co-located, but there will always be numerous use cases for container and smaller farms, especially in urban areas.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing your team in the future?
Our company is venturing into immensely large-scale projects, specifically farms potentially spanning 50,000 to 100,000 square meters, and we are expanding our operations internationally as we speak. To achieve this in an efficient manner, we must establish partnerships with construction firms at each location and familiarize ourselves with local political landscapes, operational protocols, and regulatory frameworks. Undoubtedly, navigating these intricacies poses a significant challenge for any company moving from start-up to scale-up, especially in a market like vertical farming.
Another challenge we face is the significant growth in our staff size, which has expanded from five to over 80 members within the past few years. Additionally, we are currently in the process of establishing new business units, each operating in distinct industries. Initially, our company had a more familial atmosphere as my wife and I co-founded it together – despite all the stress due to the debenture, it was still more of a lifestyle business at the beginning. As the company has grown and evolved, Marie has since assumed the role of Chief Impact Officer and we’ve worked together to build a team that operates efficiently across numerous locations.
What is unique about Vertical Future compared to competitors?
There are many differentiators from a business model standpoint, but I’ll focus on our technologies, which are considerably different. First, whilst it may appear odd, we have suspended systems – and there is good reason for this. Our approach involves constructing an exoskeleton within a building or integrating it into a new build. Irrespective of type of build, this design approach enables us to organize our systems in a convenient bookshelf-style manner. This unique arrangement eliminates the need for traditional aisles and maximizes space utilization. Our cultivation method is also a huge deviation from the norm and involves utilizing our own 0.25 m2 stainless steel trays, each one equipped with a barcode. These trays move continuously throughout the entire system, ensuring optimal space utilization and allowing us to meticulously track every aspect of the process.
Our irrigation methods incorporate multiple approaches. Depending on the specific crops being cultivated, we employ aeroponics and hydroponics in our systems. Any plant scientist worth their salt will understand that all plants are different and have different requirements. We have simply applied this in respect of irrigation.
The same goes for lighting – which is naturally at the core of every vertical farm, irrespective of design. Our team has developed a distinct LED lighting solution that sets us apart, allowing us to develop growing algorithms that utilize different wavelengths of light at different times of growth and at different intensities – allowing us to bolster growth, reduce energy inputs (on many occasions), and influence plant shape, taste, and nutrient concentration. Supporting the core growing system, we have devised a novel robotic system that efficiently operates in pairs, on both sides of system, facilitating transportation of trays, much like an Amazon warehouse, massively reducing the amount of human labor and unnecessary intervention in growing areas. While certain tasks like handling strawberry trays still require human intervention, our systems are fully automated and designed to minimize any disruptive impact.
A highly automated system requires sophisticated software. Our software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, “DIANA”, which is vital for operating our farms, supplying, and collecting data, is the most advanced I have come across, surpassing other platforms that many of our investors (many of whom come from the software world) have seen. DIANA is a machine learning-based system that continuously learns from trial conditions and outputs, and pre-established performance metrics, making it smart, with some elements of AI, which will continue to develop and become more sophisticated over time.
Completing the loop, with our manufacturing process situated in-house, we achieve complete horizontal and vertical integration from a technological and business model perspective – and whilst not a ‘grower brand’, we offer farm operation services to some customers who need or request it, showcasing our versatility.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
Footprint is important, especially in a young and emerging industry. We have built eight farms in the UK and are building one in Singapore. Additionally, we are in the process of constructing farms in various other locations. Our main objective is to construct larger farms (which can benefit from economies of scale in all areas) rather than a larger number of smaller farms. Currently, we are focused on developing approximately four additional farms within the next year to 16 months. We are in the process of finalizing a deal in the Middle East, and another deal in the same region is nearing completion. Regardless of the location, it typically takes us around 12 months to complete the construction of a farm.
We have constructed farms with sizes ranging up to approximately 5,000 square meters, which I believe is our largest one. However, our current projects are even larger, starting from around 20,000 square meters and expanding further. This indicates our shift towards more substantial endeavors. Additionally, we are presently considering a significantly larger project in the UK.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started the company?
I believe the most significant lesson learned is the importance of initiating scientific and peer-reviewed studies at an earlier stage. Such studies carry substantial credibility and influence. It has become apparent within the industry that investors and customers have grown accustomed to hearing repetitive claims, making it crucial to provide substantiated findings.
I also think it is crucial for us to transition towards a state where independent reviews and regulatory bodies are actively involved in verifying the claims made by companies. Over the past few years, there has undeniably been a significant amount of misrepresentation within this industry. It's important to note that we have not engaged in such practices, but I do wish we had adopted a more scientific and literature-based approach from the outset of our journey.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Vertical Future?
People can easily get in touch with us through our website at https://verticalfuture.com using the contact form provided. They can also connect with us on LinkedIn. We are currently the fifth most followed company in our sector worldwide. We have a strong presence with over 20,000 followers (approximately) on the platform. Feel free to reach out to us through LinkedIn or directly on our website and we can chat!
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