This interview details Yasai, an indoor farming company based in Switzerland. The interview is with Philipp Bosshard, CTO & Founderof Yasai.
Yasai was founded in January 2020 by me, Mark Zahran and Stefano Augstburger. Despite our very different backgrounds, we were united by the belief that our food system needs a radical change towards more sustainable growth practices.
While I am an environmental engineer and mainly focused on technical challenges and difficulties of vertical farming, Mark as an architect explored the potential to integrate vertical farms into the urban and rural landscapes of tomorrow. Finally, Stefano our most senior co-founder with a background in economics worked in the financial industry, selling green and sustainable investments for numerous companies and wanted to explore further into the building of sustainable business models.
We initially built Yasai to be an engineering and service company to help others to establish vertical farms all over the world. While there were already a couple of tech companies out there, offering turnkey vertical farms, we saw a lack of support on the operational side of things, which after all is one of the most important parts to be able to turn a profit with a vertical farm. Therefore, we decided to not build our own technology from scratch but rather rely on established products and act as a system integrator with a focus on operations.
For this reason, we built the first pilot farm near Zurich, which we completed in January 2022. The facility has 1200 m2 of grow space and is therefore not just a proof of concept but rather a small-scale commercial operation. After we started to market our produce to some customers, we saw that there was a large demand for vertical farming produce in Switzerland. At the same time, the project-based service business model proved to be rather difficult. That’s when we decided to pivot our business model towards being a full-scale operator and food producer and abandon the service part. Today we are delivering our products to around 600 supermarkets all over the country and are the market leader in vertical farming in Switzerland. In the future, we might also bring back parts of the service model by introducing a franchising model including tech, operations, and branding of Yasai.
Scaling up the business has proven to be the biggest challenge, mainly due to financial constraints. The recent crisis of vertical farming with many bankruptcies of big players has significantly lowered the trust in the industry. We expect the aftermath of the crash to last for the next one to two years and lead to even more consolidation in the market. As of today, it is very difficult to convince investors to put more money into a new vertical farming project, even with a solid business plan and a clear outlook for profits. The echo from recent failures of big players is just too big right now.
Therefore, most small to medium-sized companies, including us, will most likely need to refine their strategies and try to make the best out of what they already have in terms of infrastructure and employees.
A truly unique feature of Yasai is the way our farms are designed and how they operate. Our biggest focus was always on sustainable operations and the implementation of true circular economy. For example, our HVAC system is designed in a unique way which allows us to recapture all waste heat originating from our lighting system and other parts of the facility. We utilize this recaptured heat to heat up our whole facility including processing rooms, storage, and common rooms, and even create a surplus of energy that can be sold to neighboring buildings like industry or residential.
For example, our pilot farm creates enough surplus energy to heat 50 – 60 average apartments during winter. This not only improves the sustainability of our operations but also acts as a second source of income and eliminates our dependency on fossil heat sources such as natural gas. This way of circular thinking and integration spans all our processes, such as green waste processing, substrates, fertilizers, and more, and helps us to achieve a truly sustainable vertical farming operation, which is unfortunately not the case with many vertical farming operations today.
Our pilot farm has 1200 m2 of grow space and we are currently a team of 16 people including management. We specialize in the production of kitchen herbs such as basil and coriander and deliver to about 600 stores of the largest Swiss retailer six days a week. We do all production steps in-house and deliver a finished, Yasai branded convenience product to the stores, which allows us to maximize the value of our produce.
We would like to expand our product portfolio and leverage our current position to grow further in the Swiss market. As mentioned before, we might also want to launch a sort of franchising in the future, but only when the market conditions once again allow it. Next to food, we are also keeping an eye on other potential markets such as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
We already conducted some tests with notable cosmetic brands in Switzerland and are currently evaluating potential collaborations. These markets offer a clear benefit when it comes to purchase volumes compared to the food market. While the demand for food fluctuates with the seasons, the demand for functional botanicals in cosmetics or pharmaceuticals more or less remains the same over the whole year.
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