What started as a humble tabletop farm at the University of Virginia has since evolved into a major company to watch in the vertical farming space, particularly when it comes to the software piece of the process. Babylon Microfarms has over the last few years garnered quite a bit of attention for its controlled-environment farms the company now licenses to hospitals, cafeterias, and other other foodservice operations.
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia (though soon moving HQ to Richmond, VA) Babylon makes a “plug-and-play” system for hydroponic farming that automates much of the grow process and makes controlled-environment farming more accessible. The company raised a $2.3 million seed round in January of this year and, its current product is a standalone farming unit that grows leafy greens.
Of late, however, the bulk of founders Alexander Olesen and Graham Smith’s focus is on software: namely, using it to automate the growing process, which removes the more complicated aspects of vertical farming that would be off-putting to the average user.
“Growing is a cumbersome experience for many,” Olesen explained to me over the phone this week. “Removing the friction of the user experience and combining that will some of the remote management [will make] smaller forms of vertical farming possible.”
Were the average person to try and build their own high-tech grow system, it would require significant expertise in horticulture, hardware infrastructure, and software development. To name just a few examples, that would include calculating one’s one LED light recipe (which takes the place of sunlight in controlled-environment ag), controlling the temperature of the farm, and understanding how much nutrient to feed each crop and when to do that. Everyday would require a certain amount of trial and error for every plant variety.
All of this makes for prohibitively high costs when it comes to commercial greenhouse production. Olesen noted that for controlled-environment farming to go mainstream, it has to be less technically complicated for the user.
Babylon’s software is one solution addressing those complications. The company’s “seed-to-sale” system automatically dispenses the right amount of nutrients, light, and water for each crop, simultaneously collecting data on the plants so that the system can make adjustments as needed. The entire system can be controlled remotely via a mobile app.
Up to now, the company has drawn comparisons to the likes of Farmshelf, Farm.One, and InFarm, all companies that license a hardware-software farming combination out to foodservice and hospitality operations.
But Babylon’s founders told me they aren’t necessarily interested in the hardware aspect going forward. Smith says they would prefer something like teaming up with a hardware manufacturer that wants to make vertical farms but perhaps needs more expertise in software to complement their hardware capabilities.
Such a scenario is actually on its way to becoming a reality. At CES this past year, hardware giant LG announced plans for a smart-farming appliance for the consumer kitchen. At the same time, GE Appliances showcased its Home Grown concept, which featured grow systems using hydroponics and soil-based methods. Prior to CES, Miele acquired Agrilution in another play for smart farms in the appliance space.
All of these hardware developments suggest great opportunity for the accompanying software. While many companies in the vertical farming space try to do both right now, Babylon’s future focus on being “an enabling company” that offers software and services may prove a wiser bid for the long term. Besides building out distribution of its own farms, Babylon is currently interested in working with other businesses, particularly those making hardware, that want to enter the vertical farming space.
There will be no one product that wins, Olesen said, adding that instead, it will be a combination of tools working together to make vertical farming more accessible to everyone.