“We’re focused on being a solutions provider in the vertical farming industry, and that starts with seeds,” says John Purcell, president and CEO of Unfold. Unfold is a California-based startup that is working to develop seeds and related digital services specifically for the vertical farming industry.
Time for genetics
As John explains, the vertical farming industry is underserved by global seed companies as these companies have been primarily focused on open-field and greenhouse/glasshouse agriculture, whereas indoor farming is relatively new. Unfold was thus born out of the desire to provide vertical farms with the best seeds and tools for their farms.
Although multiple crop varieties are available for greenhouse and open-field agriculture, these growing environments are quite different from vertical farms and thus the demanded traits also differ. Unfold believes that it is time to rewrite that narrative. “The vast investment in vertical farming has been mostly to develop growing systems, controls, lighting, robotics, etc. Now, it’s time for the genetics and seeds to catch up,” John says.
Interestingly, John explains that the genetics of vertical farming will likely benefit from the highly controlled indoor environments by experiencing less pest and pathogen pressure. While all varieties will need an inherent resistance to pathogens and pests, this will likely be lower than for other cropping systems since the crop is in a highly sanitary environment.
This trait may allow Unfold to identify a wider variety of crops that can be grown in vertical farms. The company is currently focusing on leafy greens but plans to expand near term into fruiting crops such as tomato, pepper, and cucumber and in the future crops like strawberry.
New R&D facility
Unfold, established a mere eight months ago, recently signed a lease and has initiated the design and build for its R&D site near Davis, California. The facility is expected to be completed in Fall 2021. This facility will allow Unfold to screen different varieties in-house and identify varieties that meet the desired agronomic conditions and product quality. The seeds will then be trialed at clients’ facilities to ensure the varieties’ computability with vertical farming.
According to John, the company’s headquarters being near Davis, California, allows Unfold to capitalize on a wealth of agricultural and technological experience in the region. Further, Unfold’s partnership through with “Leaps by Bayer”, the impact investment arm of Bayer AG, Unfold will have access to Bayer germplasm. This means that the company will have access to Bayer’s germplasm and will not need to start from scratch in developing their seeds resources.
“As a startup, having access to germplasm allows us to focus entirely on vertical farming,” notes John.