"As our crops are sold at a premium price, we're already at the top of the supply chain. With our margins, we can luckily still withstand cost increases. Although the business model is not to grow, we're more interested in supplying the entire ecosystem to other growers. That's why we offer a franchising model," says Shengjie Bao, Co-founder, and CEO of Singrow, a Singapore-based agtech.
Shengjie Bao presenting Blooom berries that are sold to high-end restaurants in Singapore
R&D at heart
After three years of testing, cross-breading, and experimenting with varieties, Singrow has been able to launch various products for their clientele. Research being the backbone of the company, Singrow has a research collaboration agreement with the National University of Singapore, where they run a lab focusing on crop research.
Besides that, the company is working on a breeding platform that allows growers to optimize their yield, production, and efficiency of strawberry growth. The breeding platform has various varieties to pick from, and it only takes as less as six months to develop a new variety by selecting different daughter lines from the current breeding combination. On top of that, 30 new varieties are waiting to go commercial, but the first IP applications went out the door.
Having said that, Singrow is looking to further expand. That's why the company is tapping a new funding round, series A, to roll out their tropical-resilient strawberry varieties on the Asian market. About a year ago, we spoke with Shengjie and he noted that the Southeast market was their original playing ground. However, the company has been receiving various inquiries from the Middle East and China, which is why they are now adding those regions to its portfolio.
Singrow's self-cross-bred white berries
A divided business model
Dividing their business into three categories, the first one is contract farming and franchising. Meaning that their farming platform is used by other farmers which enables them to upgrade their standards and growing outcomes. Secondly, through e-commerce and offline sales channels. Taking over a platform allows the company to be present in multiple sales channels, which strengthens the presence of its consumer brand Blooom.
Lastly, another offline channel is a recently launched concept juice bar inside a metro station in Singapore. This allows Singrow to deliver farm-to-table and as well, use new retail outlets to directly have the consumer in contact with their products. In collaboration with Stellar Lifestyle, the business arm of SMRT (The Singapore metro network), the store will raise awareness of sustainable growing methods. Combining e-commerce with this store, customers can pick up their orders directly at the store.
Low energy, multiple growth cycles
In terms of energy, the farm doesn't use that many resources. As Shengjie explains, there is a stable climate year-round since Singrow's proprietary berry cultivation only requires a temperature between 20-26 degrees. It's, therefore rather easy to balance out the cooling.
"We've succeeded in speeding up the growth by 40%, using 1.5L water per strawberry plant per cycle. Comparing our system to the traditional growers in Japan and China, it takes them about 8-10 months for three rounds of harvests, whereas we can do 6-8 harvest cycles in 12 months."
According to Shengjie, there is a huge gap in the market, not only in a seven-month period where there is no supply of sweet strawberries but in general. "There are no high-quality berries available, especially not a mixture of the hard variety (ever-bearing) and the soft berry variety (seasonal-bearing). At this point, we have developed our own strawberry varieties that can be grown under a warmer climate to offer off-season quality supply to fill this market gap."
The cherry tomatoes are in bloom after only 1.5 month from planting
Self-pollinating cherry tomatoes
Growing at a fixed height, Singrow's self-developed cherry tomatoes are blossoming! However, the team is still measuring the economies around the variety. For the current features, it's perfectly suiting to vertical farming and 100% self-pollinating, which allows a fast-growing time period. From seed to blooming only takes 1.5 months.
"Ultimately, it's still an economically viable crop to grow. Though, we haven't thoroughly researched the market yet to jump into details. Our solemn focus, for now, is our strawberries."
Shengjie gives away that soon they will move into a new facility with a 375m2 footprint, though with a lower ceiling than they have now. (3.8m vs. 6.5m ceiling height) Inside the facility, there will be four cultivation zone setups enclosed, all insulated as a cool room setup. This will allow the temperature to be balanced out nicely without having to change temperature frequently, saving massively on energy. The inside temperature will stay between 18-25 degrees Celsius.
In comparison to the other farm, there will be a lot of upgrades, says Shengjie. Lower racks will be used, allowing six levels to be stacked on top of each other. Besides that, the farm control system will have up to 48 different settings to give more dedicated and dynamic settings for crops at different stages.
What's currently produced in the pilot farm is supplied to Singapore's high-end restaurants: Marina Bay Sands and Shangri-La, which have Singrow's berries integrated into their dishes. Here, the company's logo is featured on its menu which has resulted in much mouth-to-mouth marketing for the company. Though, it's been really tough to keep up with the requirement.
Another reason why the company needs funding is to actually take on all the inquiries they have been receiving and to expand its ecosystem in Southeast Asia, China, and the Middle East through franchise and contract farming. "But that's a good sign, right?" Shengjie says, laughing.