Optimised and controlled environments
for Biopharming.

At Veggitech, we tackled the challenge of growing high-quality plants in scalable,
indoors systems for R&D in the medicinal and pharmaceutical industry.

Our system simulated the perfect environment for a plant to grow healthy and strong. The system was intended to be modular and scalable, allowing it to generate large quantities of produce in affordable, reliable and controlled conditions.

Our innovation was to be used to serve the needs of multiple industries.

The industry that interested us the most was the pharmaceutical industry, more specifically, the production of biopharmaceuticals. A biopharmaceutical is any pharmaceutical drug product manufactured in, extracted from, or semisynthesized from biological sources. Of all biopharmaceuticals that are currently on the market, the one that is most accounted for is the recombinant therapeutic protein drug. The major areas of applications are diabetes, dwarfism, congestive heart failure, cerebral apoplexy, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis, asthma and cancers therapies.

But the development of recombinant proteins does not come easy and does not come cheap. Traditionally, recombinant proteins are grown in mammalian cells in bioreactors. Mammalian cell culture facilities cost up to several hundred million dollars in upfront construction and equipment costs (Dove, 2002). The process is tremendously capital intensive, and generates small quantities of protein. In recent years, biopharming in plants has proved to be a viable alternative to mammalian cultures. Instead of growing the protein in bioreactors, scientists have modified the DNA of plants to grow recombinant proteins. The plants are therefore used as the bioreactor. But the environments in which plants are grown is of paramount importance for the success of this method. Managing all growth parameters allows the scientists to slow down or accelerate the plants growth cycle to optimize the development of the recombinant protein it hosts.

Currently, plants are either grown in outdoors fields or in custom green houses. The solutions that are available on the market do not meet the quality standards that have been set by bioreactors. This is where our innovation project came in. We built a system that gave the user control over all parameters that influence the development of a plant. Our prototype controlled all parameters within a 3% range of accuracy and grew plants in a reliable fashion.

Another industry that could benefit from our system is the commercial vertical farming industry. Our system provides all the technical expertise needed to grow food reliably, regardless of weather conditions and time of year. Our system can be built close to cities to cut down on transportation and provide large quantities of produce to sustain local market needs.

The medicinal marijuana industry is yet another niche market that can benefit from the reliability of our system to meet regulatory standards and meet quality and quantity demands on time.

Our objective was to develop large scale plant growth systems that provide exemplary accuracy for the pharmaceutical and medicinal industry. We believe that in this niche market lies one of the biggest opportunities for innovation and technological advancement in the field of advanced indoors farming.

 

Prototype 1 / Technical specs

Physical aspect

Designed to be transported on a EUR palette (80*120 cms).
6 cms thick sides with a growth area of around 68*108 cms.
System height ± 1,8 to 2 m.
Variable heights via stackable modules that extend the growth area.
100% sealed system.
Access to plants via physical door.
Monitoring via camera within the system.

Lighting

7 spectrums of dimmable LEDs for lighting.
Reflective inner wall coating.

Climate system

Bottom to top airflow.
Humidity range between 20% and 100%.
Temperature range between 4°C and 50°C.
Additive CO2 capabilities with accurate maintenance up to 10,000 ppm.

Sensor system

CO2, O2, Humidity sensors: within 2% of accuracy.
Temperature sensors: within 0,2°C of accuracy (CO2 measures up to 20,000 ppm).
3D sensor system measuring: Leaf size, height, biomass, inter-nodal distances.

Irrigation system

Aeroponic irrigation system with variable droplet sizes

User interface

Camera view inside the box and time-lapse feature.
Data points recording every 30 minutes viewable in a timeline chart (Temperature, Humidity, CO2, O2, Ph).
Recipe scheduling set in 24 hour cycles (Lighting, temperature, humidity, airflow, irrigation).
History and suggested pre-sets.
Alerts and notifications.

Camera and chart views + dashboard overview of all running recipes.

Camera and chart views + dashboard overview of all running recipes.

 

Our approach and vision

Vertical farming systems can provide various benefits to research institutions, universities, seed banks, pharma companies, grocery stores and farmers. For the systems to be truly useful, we thought there was one truly viable solution:

To partner with a multitude of companies and institutions on the refinement of our system in order to understand how to integrate it in various supply chains.

Our vision was a future with fully automated, large-scale growth systems adapted and integrated in city-wide supply chains.

The team and the prototype

The prototype was developed mainly with a team composed of one engineer and myself, with occasional contractors helping out where needed. The project was worked on for the better part of a year and a half as a side project and was ended in July 2016.

Here are the most important lessons I learned during that period of time:

https://medium.com/@ralphnakhle/8-learnings-from-my-attempted-startup-5d4f3ac4dbf3

Thank you!