"The client wanted 1 gram of seeds per plant for downstream processing. They actually got 10 grams of seeds per plant." It's no wonder Glenn Behrman with CEA Advisors is happy with the way the Core Biogenesis facility in Strasbourg turned out. "The key to all successful projects is collaboration, not competition."
In December 2020, the startup Core Biogenesis raised 2.6 million euros in Seed from XAnge. Shortly after, they retained Behrman and CEA Advisors to design and build their facility, and in March 2022, with Behrman's design in hand, they completed a 2nd funding round of €10M. Until here, it might sound like a typical vertical farming startup – but it isn't. There's no lettuce being grown in this facility. What differentiates the Core BioTech facility in Strasbourg is that it's not serving the fresh produce market but the biopharmaceutical industry, who are developing cell therapies. The crop in question was an oilseed that had never been grown indoors before, a three-four month crop from seed to harvest.
Assembling the team and the facility
The Core Biogenesis team flew Behrman to France, and together they began researching available sites. After they agreed on the proposed site in Strasbourg, Behrman immediately flew to Amsterdam and began assembling the team. Design and development took a few months and many meetings on Zoom. Actual construction took about two months, and Core Biogenesis had a fully functioning climate chamber production facility –the largest biotech facility in France and possibly the largest in the EU. The project involved a range of specialists, including Parus-Europe for LED lighting, Geerlof's for HVAC, H2 Hydroponics in Spain for irrigation, and Microgreens Denmark for installation. Glenn Behrman with CEA Advisors managed and was hands-on in every step of the process, from site selection to the final installation.
One gram of oil seeds
As said, the client's main objective was to produce one gram of oil seeds per plant for downstream processing. In order to realize this, the team's goal was to replicate and improve upon the plant's natural environment. "Our approach to the project was one of curiosity and experimentation. We researched the plant in its natural environment, looking at factors such as daylight, temperature, and humidity to create the ideal growing conditions", says Glenn. "You often find engineers telling the plant what to do. We saw it as the other way around: the plant tells the engineer what it needs."
For example, they realized that the fertilizer needs of the plants would change during the growing period, so they designed two irrigation systems: one for the first two months and one for the second two months. This allowed for less vegetative growth and more seed production in the later stages.
He adds how one of the most interesting participants in the project was Geerlofs. "Their capabilities and attention to detail is stunning," Glenn says. Geerlofs was responsible for installing a unique HVAC system that was optimized to the smallest details. "Thanks to their fine design and their creativity, each chamber, made from sandwich panels, allowed the air to move through the multi-level system seamlessly. It seems like a small design component – what's a curved wall, after all – but it reduced the need for powered air movement. Thanks to the design, without the 90-degree angles, there's organic air movement inside each chamber, which is why we could work with smaller air distribution systems and thus save energy."
Another key component of the project was the LED lights from Parus-Europe. Not only was the light recipe created by carefully researching the plants, but the lights also are all dimmable, and the team was able to integrate the dimming into the bridge box, consolidating most of the processes. The same touchscreen controls everything, making the entire system seamless.
Now the project is in full production, the results from the production facility exceeded the client's wildest expectations. "They were trying to accomplish a yield of 1 gram/seeds per plant, and they got 10 gram/seeds per plant", Glenn says. "The day they told me that, I was dancing around the house like a kid. We accomplished exactly what we wanted to accomplish." But let's be honest - it is not as if this project didn't have any hiccups. As with many projects nowadays, the availability of electricity turned out to be quite a challenge, so to speak. "One of the first things we did after choosing the location was to order an increase in power. We took care of it very early in the process, ensuring we had a 400 AMP connection. Little did we know we only had 400 AMP service to the main building of the complex, not to the actual warehouse", Glenn sighs. "It took some time to solve it, and also additional expenses, of course." Yet, it didn't affect the total results of the project – as we had calculated unexpected expenses beforehand. We also had to deal with significant supply chain issues, including the war in Ukraine and a truck strike in Spain.
Glenn adds how the success of the project was largely due to the team's approach. While other companies were focused on budget, the Core Biogenesis development team was focused on the crop. “Chouaib Meziadi and Alexandre Reeber of Core Biogenesis are very smart. They grew the same plants in a greenhouse and knew the results from the greenhouse. But they didn't expect it to increase tenfold." Speaking about the project, Glenn emphasizes the importance of collaboration, saying, "The whole project from beginning to end was done properly because we all worked together, and I might add we all enjoyed every minute of it. The key to all successful projects is collaboration, not competition."
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