Imagine a farm that is seven meters high. That’s right. A seven-meter-high urban vertical farm.
This is Pink Farms, a farm tech located in Vila Leopoldina, a neighborhood in downtown São Paulo. Inside, towers of up to ten floors, lit by red and blue lamps, which simulate sunlight and result in a pink atmosphere that is an optimal environment to grow different types of vegetables, leafy greens, mushrooms, and some fruits.
Vertical farms are a model of intensive farming: a lot of food production in a small area. They are a new model for urban farms based entirely on technology and automation, since they provide a highly controlled environment to grow plants. . The premise is to increase the efficiency of cultivation and the quality of the final product at a reduced operating cost and at a location that is nearby a majority of consumers.
In an interview with LABS, Geraldo Maia, one of the co-founders of Pink Farms alongside brothers Mateus and Rafael Delalibera, explained that the farmtech was born from the trio’s desire to create a technology business focused on the real-economy market, that would add technology to some product or process to impact the production chain in a disruptive way.
“We looked for everyday problems and discovered the low variety and quality in growing vegetables and fruits. We realized that vertical farms solve several problems in this production chain: the scarcity of food, the use of native land, the low quality of food, and the intensive use of pesticides.”
Pink Farms‘ vertical production system was entirely developed by the startup. It all starts with a “recipe” that’s customized for each plant. This is where the startup’s multidisciplinary team studies the genetics of a particular plant and defines “what people want” from it: what flavor, how much crispness, how big, etc. Then, the ideal production conditions are evaluated, that is, what is the germination rate, what is the harvest variation, what is the productivity level per square meter per month, among others. Finally, the variables applied to that crop are defined, such as the combination of hydroponic systems, lights and climate settings.
The next step is up to the engineering team, which works on how to automate that specific crop at scale in a controlled environment.
The specifics of the model, said Maia, encouraged the development of the in-house technology. “There is no market solution that meets our model. So we developed 100% of the technology.”
The result is a sealed growing system, where there is no air exchange between the growing environment and the outside environment. The technology ensures 100% control of the plant’s variables: from temperature to humidity and CO2 levels, the lighting, which is entirely artificial, to the nutrient solution the plants receive.
Pink Farms’ R&D is in its fourth stage, according to Maia. The whole story began in 2016, with the technological-validation phase, when the three co-founders developed and submitted the vertical farming system to a series of tests to verify that it was indeed efficient.
Then came the phases of economic validation, with a pilot model of the farm, verification of processes and calculating costs per kilo produced, tests with suppliers and experimentation with more than 40 types of plants, until reaching the ideal portfolio; followed by commercial validation, in which the startup aimed to make adjustments to land on the best logistics and sales model.
This whole process lasted about three years and answered the group’s initial question: yes, the system is efficient. The Pink Farms’ vertical farm produces about three tons per month and up to 130 times more food per square meter of soil. According to Maia, it generates savings of 95% of water and 60% of fertilizers per kilo produced. Bonus: the food is pesticide-free.
From the company’s vertical farm, it distributes products to the center, west and south zones of São Paulo and its produce is already present in more than 75 points of sale in the city, including supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants. The startup handles all of its own distribution logistics.
The startup is currently focused on expansion. In September, Pink Farms will be moving and opening a new vertical farm that is larger and more automated, with towers of up to 24 floors for cultivation. The startup estimates that the production will jump from three tons per month to up to 120 tons, at a cost that is up to 35% cheaper than its current operation
Maia said that the new vertical farm will be the first flagship location for Pink Farms and the plan is to scale up that operation and then replicate the model in other regions of Brazil. Pink Farms has no intention of selling the technology to other companies.
In the six years since it was founded, Pink Farms has already had three rounds of investment, with a total of BRL 8.8 million in funding. Among its investors are SP Ventures, Grão Venture Capital and Capital Lab Ventures. The startup’s most recent funding round, concluded in March, happened via crowdfunding and raised BRL 4.8 million, 20% more than expected.
Besides the launch of the new vertical farm and the plans to replicate the model, Maia said that Pink Farms has plans for a Series A round, possibly even this year, and, in the long run, to build a strong brand throughout Latin America. For the entrepreneur, agro is still a little explored area of technology-based business opportunities and Pink Farms wants to ride this wave.
“There are still huge opportunities in agro, which is a market that still relies heavily on big companies to bring innovation. Agro is still going to be revolutionized by startups; there is still a lot of value to be added to the production chain,” he said.