Very few people these days even think about the fact that having cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes on supermarket shelves at all times of the year isn’t “normal”. We’ve been fully accustomed to a constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, without really ever wondering where they come from. It would be easy to blame it on our modern obsession with instant availability of pretty much everything. Turns out, it’s not a modern thing at all.
It actually started with Roman Emperor Tiberius, who had been prescribed a cucumber a day by his physicians. Fearing the wrath of their ruler, Roman gardeners had to find a way to fill this tricky daily prescription. The solution they found? Loading planters onto carts that they wheeled inside when the weather was too cold or inclement, and cover them with translucent mica or selenite to protect the plants from the elements. The greenhouse MVP was born.
Nowadays, needless to say, we’re very far from these carts, even though the principle remains the same: maintain plants in an optimal climate for their growth, regardless of season and weather. Since much of the greenhouse cultivated surface (aside from polytunnels) is found in colder climates, this requires a copious amount of heating in colder months. But heating costs money, and with the recent explosion of natural gas prices, it has become unsustainable for some growers to continue operating.
For about 40 years now, the solution to save on heating by preventing heat loss has been retractable screens inside the greenhouse. The improvement in their efficacy has however become marginal, a few percentage points here and there. Faced with pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and skyrocketing energy costs, growers absolutely need a step change.
Infrascreen found the answer to growers’ plight in nanotechnology. Repurposing to horticulture a technology used, among other applications, in the manufacturing of computer hard drives — thin layer deposition — the team has developed a coating, which, when applied to screen base material, is able to trap more heat in the greenhouse. The difference? 20% less heating needed, per year. If you’re wondering if this is a lot, it is massive. We’re talking enough to double the growers’ net margin and save 200 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
But the team is not stopping here, they have another three products in the pipeline which target other pain points in high and low tech greenhouses both in cold and hot climates. Cracking the heat challenges of hot climates, like in Spain, Morocco and Tunisia, is particularly interesting because it will truly open to the door to year-round production.
Needless to say, we’re bullish on Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), and within it particularly greenhouses over vertical farming, which to us, in its present state, is economically less compelling as a VC case. More and more fruits and vegetables will be grown globally using CEA in the coming decades, and for good reasons. It presents numerous advantages: the fact that food can be grown closer to where it is eaten, which means less transport/logistics and hopefully less waste. With promising technologies like Infrascreen’s, it can also mean less net emissions. Another advantage less spoken about is linked to plant genetics. For hundreds of years we’ve favoured genetic traits in fruits and vegetables that ensured yield while boosting resistance to pests and weather stress. If you now remove these external pressures, you can focus on different aspects, like nutritional value and taste. And because you grow in an enclosed environment, you also drastically reduce the need for pesticides.
The most pressing issues for greenhouse growers at the moment are the cost of energy, and labour. Infrascreen’s technology will allow us to make a big step in the right direction on energy. As for labour, we’re looking for the right company to back, so stay tuned!
Really excited to welcome Henri and Benoit into the Investbridge AgriTech VC Fund portfolio and partner with them on their journey. As always, please do not hesitate to reach out if you want to chat more about why we think they will become the global benchmark when it comes to climate screens and polytunnel covers.