Crops in greenhouses — an increasingly popular way to supply year-round fresh greens and other produce to places with cold winters — are most productive when they receive the right amount of light at the right time.
But there’s a downside. Greenhouses are energy hogs and typically generate more gasses than traditional field agriculture because of their lighting and heating needs. Those are terrible characteristics for a burgeoning industry at a time of growing concern over global warming.
GrowFlux, a Philadelphia agricultural technology start-up that is trying to make the industry more efficient, won a $250,000 grant last week from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator for research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. The aim is to reduce energy consumption in greenhouses by fine-tuning the amount of artificial light that crops receive.
Simple timers are traditionally used to turn lights on and off in greenhouses, said Eric Eisele, GrowFlux’s chief executive and cofounder. “They’re not dialing in the light in accordance with when the crop is actually using light most efficiently,” he said. “It results in a fair bit of energy that’s wasted.”
The GrowFlux system — to be further developed with the help of researchers at NREL and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis — measures the natural light available and then adjusts the artificial light to add more when needed.
GrowFlux estimates that it can cut energy use by 20% to 30%.
While the grant, funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation, involves GrowFlux’s lighting controls, the University City company has a broader target with sensors that monitor carbon dioxide levels, humidity, temperature, and other factors that determine how well plants grow.
“They were one of the very first companies that were trying to essentially make farms like ours smart farms by using technology,” said Ajit Mathew George, founder and managing partner at Second Chances Farm in Wilmington, an indoor vertical farm that employs formerly incarcerated individuals.
“You don’t think of indoor vertical farms as being a place where technology plays an important part,” said George, who uses a GrowFlux app on his phone to monitor Second Chances Farm. “It does, and the more it does, the better our production is.”
Investor interest in indoor agriculture surged last year, with $929 million going into 41 deals in the United States, according to PitchBook Data Inc. That’s twice the amount invested the year before. Most of the money went into producers rather than into makers of components and technology like GrowFlux.
Eisele, 35, and Alexander Roscoe, chief technology officer, founded GrowFlux in 2017. Both are Drexel University graduates.
Eisele’s background is in interior lighting for humans. He worked for seven years in the research group at KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia architecture firm. Rosco, 36, worked at Comcast on the build-out of national internet architecture.
GrowFlux’s first products, launched in 2018, were horticultural lights with built-in wireless technology. “The lighting space got very competitive in horticulture due to legalization of cannabis,” Eisele said.
The start-up, which now employs four, was competing with “the likes of Philips and General Electric and Osram,” Eisele said. GrowFlux dropped its lights in 2019 but kept developing its controllers.
Eisele and Roscoe declined to disclose their annual revenue but said they have raised close to $2 million from investors. The company has products in more than 100 farms, including indoor cannabis producers and greenhouses growing food like tomatoes and strawberries. The products are also used overseas, in Iceland and in an indoor vertical farm in Singapore that grows strawberries, Eisele said.
Trish Cozart, NREL’s program manager for the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator, which in the past has worked with companies involved in traditional farming, said that over the next 30 years, global food production will have to increase by 60% to meet demand. NREL is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It might not be possible to meet that demand through field-grown agriculture. Indoor agriculture is going to play a part. We don’t know how big of a part,” she said. But because indoor agriculture consumes so much energy, “we want to figure out how to combat that using innovative companies,” Cozart said.