Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of vertical farming company Farm66, wants to show that farming, combined with technology, has a bright future in cities, deserts and even in space.
In early February, residents of Hong Kong, an Asian financial center home to 7.4 million people, faced a shortage of fresh produce. Shelves stocking vegetables and the like were empty in the city’s supermarkets as strict Covid-19 controls across the border in mainland China severely disrupted the supply of fresh food.
Hong Kong, a densely populated city with limited agricultural space, is almost totally dependent on the outside world for its food supply. Over 90% of the food in the skyscraper-studded city, especially fresh produce like vegetables, is imported, mostly from mainland China. “During the pandemic, we have all noticed that the productivity of locally grown vegetables is very low,” says Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of vertical farming company Farm66 in Hong Kong. “The social impact has been huge.”
Tam estimates that only about 1.5% of the city’s vegetables are produced locally. But he believes vertical farms like Farm66, with the help of modern technologies, such as IoT sensors, LED lights and robots, can bolster Hong Kong’s local food production and export its know-how to others. cities. “Vertical farming is a good solution because vegetables can be planted in cities,” Tam says in an interview at the company’s vertical farm in an industrial area. “We can grow vegetables ourselves so that we are not dependent on imports.”
Tam says he started Farm66 in 2013 with his co-founder Billy Lam, who is the company’s chief operating officer, as a pioneer of high-tech vertical farming in Hong Kong. “Our company was the first to use energy-efficient LED and wavelength lighting technologies on a farm,” he says. “We found that different colors on the light spectrum help plants grow in different ways. It was our technological breakthrough. For example, red LED light will cause stems to grow faster, while blue LED light encourages plants to grow larger leaves.
Farm66 also uses IoT sensors and robots for quality control and to help run the 20,000 square foot indoor farm, which helps the company recruit and retain workers. “A big problem for traditional farming is the lack of talent,” says Tam. “It’s because the children of many remaining farmers don’t want to take over the farms. They think it is very tedious work.
“But by using technology, we can improve the work environment so that young people are willing to cultivate,” he says. Farm66 currently employs 15 full-time staff, including data analysts, food scientists and mechanical engineers, producing up to seven tons of vegetables per month.
It was Farm66’s use of technology, particularly its analyzes of light intensity, water flow and air conditioning data, that attracted Hong Kong-based tech-focused venture capital firm ParticleX. Kong backed by billionaire Tang Yiu. “I appreciate that Gordon and his team have done a lot of agricultural mechanism data analysis,” says Mingles Tsoi, ParticleX’s exploration director. “That’s why we chose them as our main investment target.”
Other investors in Farm66 include the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Hong Kong government-backed Cyberport, and Singaporean billionaire Robert Ng’s Hong Kong property developer, Sino Group. So far, he has raised over $4 million in total funding.
Earlier this year, Farm66 also received funding from the Chinese government Hengqin Financial Investment and was accepted into the HK Tech 300 Angel Fund, a startup support program from the City University of Hong Kong (where co-founder Lam earned a bachelor’s degree). in applied chemistry). Last year, the company made the inaugural Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list, which highlights notable small businesses and startups growing in the Asia-Pacific region.
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“A more sustainable consumption behavior is to consume local.”
Farm66 grows leafy greens, herbs and fruits using aquaponics, a sustainable farming technique in which plants are grown using nutrients from fish waste instead of commercial fertilizers. The plants, in turn, filter the water in which the fish live, creating a self-regulating inner ecosystem.
The company packages the products for sale to supermarkets, hotels and high-end retail stores. Farm66 has also recently received requests from schools and private organizations to help grow their own food in kitchens and small spaces. “We provide farm-to-table systems for organizations so they can grow vegetables for themselves,” says Tam, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable urban development from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “We want to promote urban agriculture and ESG principles to improve quality of life.”
Farm66 has already worked with the best local banks. Tam adds that the company plans to work with real estate developers such as Sino Group, Chinachem Group and Hong Kong billionaire Lee Shau Kee’s Henderson Land Development to bring its urban farming systems to residential and commercial buildings, such as soilless powered farms. by solar or wind energy. energy on the roofs.
“People will be aware of the environmental, social and governance issues of importing something away from your home. It will use more energy and emit more carbon,” says ParticleX’s Tsoi, who is also a director and member. founder of the Hong Kong Institute. social impact analysts. “A more sustainable consumption behavior is to consume local.”
Tam, who did her undergraduate studies at Washington State University, now plans to expand Farm66 beyond Hong Kong and export her urban farming systems and know-how to other cities. For example, Farm66 created a mobile farm out of a shipping container for desert towns in the Middle East.
Tsoi points to the Greater Bay Area, a Chinese government plan to integrate Hong Kong and the gambling hub of Macau with nine cities in southern China into one big economic hub, and Southeast Asia, home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, as potential markets for Farm66.
And like billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Tam looks beyond Earth-bound opportunities. “We’re exploring new ideas about farming in space,” he says. “We have taken the lead in researching the future of agriculture, such as growing plants in a zero-gravity environment.”
“We have a lot of innovative farming ideas,” adds Tam. “We hope to help the public understand that agriculture, combined with technology, has a bright future.”
– With the help of Robert Olson.