Abu Dhabi Investment Office announces funding for LED vertical farm R&D

April 23, 2020
AeroFarms, Madar Farms, RNZ, and Responsive Drip Irrigation will receive AgTech-centric funding to further develop vertical farming techniques that can help feed the UAE region.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has announced $100 million in funding for what it calls “AgTech [agricultural technology] Pioneers,” each of which will build new research and/or growing facilities. The four recipients of the funding are AeroFarms, Madar Farms, RNZ, and Responsive Drip Irrigation (RDI), each of which will build new facilities in the Abu Dhabi emirate. The effort will leverage LED-based horticultural lighting and other technologies in attempt to solve food supply issues in the UAE region and indeed around the globe.

AeroFarms, based in Newark, NJ, is a vertical farming specialist that we first encountered back in 2016. The company uses what it calls aeroponic technology to spray a mist of water and nutrients on the roots of plants. The company has been the beneficiary of other investment capital including $100 million from retailer Ikea’s investment fund.

In Abu Dhabi, AeroFarms will build a 90,000-ft2 facility that the company said will be the largest of its kind in the world. The company didn’t completely explain that statement, but we have noted of late that vertical farms come in different configurations. AeroFarms utilizes racks or shelves of plants stacked high, each with LED lighting directly over the cultivars. Others such as Plenty rely on plants grown in a vertical series of holes in a plastic pipe of sorts where water and nutrients flow top to bottom. Such a configuration has also been adopted by Freight Farms in shipping-container-based installations.

The UAE AeroFarms facility will grow commercial crops and serve in research. The company will focus on:

  • Advanced organoleptic research and precision phenotyping laboratory
  • Advanced seed breeding center
  • Phytochemical analysis laboratory
  • Machine vision and machine learning laboratory
  • Robotics, automation, and drones laboratory

“Our mission is to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity, and this new cutting-edge R&D facility leverages our agriculture expertise and science-driven roots,” said David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms. “We will be conducting leading research in plant science, vertical farming, and automation, accelerating innovation cycles and commercializing a diverse range of products. We will be partnering with major international companies, local universities, and AgTech startups to help solve some of the most pressing agriculture needs of our time, and AeroFarms is proud to play a pivotal role to helping establish the Emirate of Abu Dhabi as a global hub for AgTech innovation.”

Tomatoes and microgreens

Moving to Madar Farms, months ago the company revealed plans to build an indoor LED-lit farm for tomatoes and microgreens in the Abu Dhabi industrial area near the port called Kizad. The grower will presumably turn to vertical farming techniques with tomatoes — an unusual choice. But we learned at our HortiCann Light + Tech Conference last year that cannabis yields have been shown to increase with shorter, more compact plants. Biomass has typically been the goal for both cultivars, which have traditionally been grown very tall — meaning they were not amenable to stacking in layers as they would in a vertical farm arrangement. However, the evaluated vertical farming techniques applied to those high-yield cannabis grow operations might produce similar results for tomato plants.

The remaining two firms will work more in an R&D capacity. RDI is perfecting a water delivery system designed to minimize water usage in sandy soils and on non-arable land. Meanwhile, RNZ, which is based in the region, will build a new R&D center hoping to increase yield.

Our HortiCann Light + Tech Conference is slated for Oct. 20, 2020 in San Jose, CA. Bruce Bugbee of Utah State University will deliver the keynote.

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