A look at the patent filing trends in vertical farming
2019 began with a sober warning about food production, consumption, and waste. Huge changes need to be made in order to feed the world’s projected 34% population growth over the next 30 years and to reduce the global impact of food production. This will require a massive cultural shift around what humans eat and how that food is produced.
Eating a more plant-based diet like the flexitarian diet is better for the environment, but other things need to happen in parallel to truly have an impact. For example, food waste needs to be dramatically reduced to help offset food scarcity and global warming. At the same time, more fruits and vegetables need to be produced in a cost-efficient and sustainable way that better utilises land and water resources. In addition, cultures that consume the most meat need to reduce their intake.
By looking into the intellectual property and the innovations currently being developed to help address these mounting concerns, ClearViewIP identified vertical farming as a technology area worth exploring in more depth. Vertical farming is the term used to describe the method of growing crops, usually without soil and natural light, vertically in a controlled environment. Vertical farming is an interesting intersection of multiple technologies combined to address sustainability, production, food and water waste reduction management, as well as accessibility.
Additionally, the evolution of vertical farming has an interesting parallel to other emerging technologies. Much like autonomous vehicles and air-taxis, without the combination of various technological advancements in artificial intelligence, battery technology, computing capability, LED lighting, and sensor technology vertical farming wouldn’t exist as a viable supplement to the current farming industry. Similar to AI, the concept of vertical farming has been around for a long time, but it’s now gaining more traction due to the acceleration of innovation in other technology areas.
Even with large pushback and high-profile naysayers, vertical farms and indoor growing technology is getting substantial investment. From large-scale vertical farms to medium-sized containers down to counter-top home growing products, consumable plant production is evolving, and the IP data supports this.
How is technology being applied to address mounting global agriculture production concerns?
As an industry, agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s fresh water consumption, three times more than 50 years ago. The UN has reported — due to global warming, the current state of water distribution, poor water waste management, and pollution — water scarcity is a major humanitarian concern. It is estimated that half of the world will be impacted by water scarcity by 2030.
Food contamination is also an issue with traditional farming. In late November 2018, there was a massive E. coli outbreak in the US that sickened 32 people in 11 states; this was the second major outbreak that year. Vegetables become contaminated with the E. coli bacteria through the manure that is applied to the soil to fertilize the crops. The use of manure for the fertilization of crops is the reason fruits and vegetables poison more people in the US than beef and chicken.
Where arable land is available, it is cheaper to buy and maintain a traditional farm than it is to build a fully-fitted indoor growing environment. In the US specifically, land scarcity is not a major concern. That said, more than half of the crops grown in the US are considered to be “commodity” crops (soy, corn, and cotton). These crops are not grown to feed people, but are instead used to feed livestock or to be transformed into other products like sweeteners and additives. According to the CDC, in the US, people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables because of limited availability and high costs. The reality is — even with enough land — there aren’t enough fruits and vegetables being produced to feed people in an affordable way.
In other regions land scarcity and political concerns impact food accessibility. For example, the UK currently uses 72% of its land area for agriculture. The UK imports nearly half of its nation’s food and 90% of the UK’s fruits and vegetable are from overseas. As the UK moves to separate itself from the European Union, the country has warned its residents that access to affordable healthy fruits and vegetables will be limited leading to larger health concerns for the country. While it is not a short-term solution, vertical farming could be an important addition to UK food production as one acre of vertical farming can provide the produce equivalent to 10-20 acres of ground farming, according to an article by Business Wales.
Where drought and desert conditions affect access to vegetables, there is a large incentive to create growing environments that reduce shipping costs and reliance on trade agreements. For example, the UAE has a vested interest in alternatives to traditional farming. As a desert country, they import 90% of their food. The only way to circumvent the need to import produce is to create a sustainable solution that doesn’t require arable land and water. In 2018, plans for the world’s largest vertical farm to be built to date were announced in Dubai. This vertical farm is a $40 million joint investment between Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering.
With multiple incentives to address and improve the way food is grown, looking at the patent data there is a noticeable and growing interest in developing alternative solutions to traditional farming. Utilising the expertise of the ClearViewIP analyst team, we have extracted insights from the patent data in the vertical farming technology space. Over 7,000 patents have been uncovered. Figure 1 below shows the patents filed for farming and gardening solutions since 1999.
Before 2007, patent filings for smart farming solutions were flat at less than 50 applications per year. In the last decade, patent filings per year have increased rapidly, with almost 900 applications filed in 2016. While globally, patent filings have been on the rise, the growth in this sector exceeds global trends. China has been driving most of the international patent applications in all technology areas. Even when China is removed, there is still a noticeable increase in patenting activity in this sector.
Figure 1: Patent Family filings for the last 20 years. Results for 2017 and 2018 are shaded to show they have incomplete data.
Looking specifically at China, there is a strong push and fast adoption for vertical farming. This is in part due to their urbanisation rate, which reached 57% in 2016 and is projected to reach 80% by 2050. Figure 2 to the right shows the patent density for vertical farming around the world and illustrates the amount of patents China owns for this technology.
Interestingly, Figure 3 below shows the top 10 filing jurisdictions are dominated by Asian countries, with the United States as the fourth largest filing jurisdiction for farming and gardening solutions. This may be due to:
Figure 3: Top 10 patent filing jurisdictions
Which companies are investing in vertical farming technology? Figure 4 below shows the top assignees in this space are largely dominated by Chinese research and academic institutions, though Panasonic has a large number of patents too. At the bottom of the assignees list, there is a large number of companies with 1 or 2 patents only: over 900 assignees have 1 patent family and over 100 assignees have 2 patent families. This could indicate that there are a large number of start-ups in this space as well as larger companies looking to be a part of the vertical farming movement.
Figure 4: Top Assignees by number of patent families for all jurisdictions.
The figure below shows the top assignees once the Chinese assignees have been removed. There are a number of large companies including Panasonic and LG electronics that are surprising to see in a farming dataset. However, these companies are examples of companies re-applying their technology knowledge to new areas. The same is true for Suntory, a Japanese Beverage company, and Deere and Bayer Cropscience who are traditionally ground farming companies.
Figure 5: Top assignees with Chinese documents excluded
The vertical farming and indoor farming markets have seen investment from many large corporates in recent times. According to the AngelList for Vertical Farming start-ups, there have been 77 start-ups funded by 546 investors. For example, New Jersey based AeroFarms is backed by IKEA, Goldman Sachs, and Prudential as well as other financial partners. Large tech giants such as Microsoft have taken an interest in the ‘future of farming’. They are investing in hydroponic farming at their Redmond Campus with the aim to reduce the transportation of greens consumed by employees. Additionally, Microsoft Research has looked at improving the output and efficiency of indoor vertical farms and have identified AI as a key area to propel the industry. The patent and funding data shows there are many start-ups in this space attracting investment.
Start-ups in the vertical farming space range from large-scale mass production facilities, to mid-range warehouses, down to small at-home growing appliances. Some local (or urban) farming solutions rely on repurposed shipping containers, such as CropBox. They claim that up to 12,000 pounds of herbs, greens or lettuces can be grown in one container annually and that their farms are equivalent to 1 acre of field lettuce growing in just 320 square feet.
In-store farms have brought vertical farming to the everyday grocery shopping experience. US retail giant Target announced plans in 2016 to grow plants and vegetables in-store and InFarm has designed a vertical farm to be placed in supermarkets. Their pilot has been placed in a wholesale supermarket where chefs shop. The scheme allows chefs to order special greens or herbs and the company delivers the seeds and grows the plants.
To service the growing vertical farming industry, there are companies like Intelligent Growth Solutions, out of Scotland, who are dedicated to creating and improving the solutions and technologies used. Their mission is to “enable customers to be the lowest cost producers in their market”. They have identified specific areas in vertical farming tech requiring solutions and have filed patents addressing lighting, automation, and power solutions which they license to vertical farms.
In order for the flexitarian diet to make an impactful difference on global warming, more people need to shift away from eating large amounts of meat and dairy. In-home gardening/growing environments are proving to be a promising application for vertical farming techniques and they could have the positive effect of normalising indoor-grown crops. These products range from counter-top vegetable gardens to full refrigerator size growing environments.
In October 2018, Estonia’s Click & Grow raised USD11 million from investors to help expand and accelerate their worldwide footprint. The makers of the indoor “smart gardens,” use NASA designed pre-germinated smart soil pods, and are on a mission to use technology to revolutionize plant cultivation. They are not the only kitchen garden on the market. There are a handful of relatively similar counter-top garden competitors from both an output and design perspective. There are also more high-end products like Natufia (also an Estonian based tech start-up) who in September 2018 raised 1.2million investment for their indoor garden system designed for chefs.
Patent filing for home-growing and counter-top hydroponic solutions has increased markedly in the last 3 years (Figure 6) and has been on the rise since 2010. This is in-line with the rising interest in smart farming as a whole. The increase for at-home technologies is slightly more recent than the spike in filings for smart farming solutions in general.
At-home gardens are being promoted as an ideal solution for growing plants within a limited space and with imperfect growing conditions. Ideal for urban dwellers with limited outdoor space, in-home garden appliances are also ideal for people who often kill their plants. Though a bit too optimistic, they are also being touted as a means to address food insecurities, food deserts, and food waste, all while increasing overall health and reducing exposure to pesticides, GMOs, and contamination. At their current scale, the “in-home gardens” on the market will not produce enough food to sustain an individual’s calorific needs, but they do make food grown in a controlled environment more accessible.
Figure 6: Home growing vertical technologies
It’s worth noting, there are many critics of vertical farming. Often the high energy costs associated with production is cited as a key point of failure for its acceptance and expansion. The high energy usage stems from the need for artificial lighting (often generated from solar panels, which at face value is counterproductive), climate control, and high levels of automation for large-scale farms to produce a sustainable level of food. There are many naturally lit alternatives, such as roof-top hydroponic/aquaponic greenhouses and, though they cannot produce as much food per square meter, they require at least 70% less energy. The concerns about energy consumption are being addressed by companies like intelligent Growth Solutions and it’s clear there is genuine interest, research, and money going into this technology area.
“As the debate over agricultural land use rages on, it is encouraging to know that at a consumer level, vertical farming and home hydroponics are becoming more mainstream and affordable. Organic leaves and vegetables with zero waste and zero mileage may soon be in every home and apartment. What would the ripple effect be on our wider environment if we all truly appreciated nature’s ability to provide for us?”
Sophia Cheng is a sustainability-focused writer