As cities continue to rapidly expand, we need a resilient and sustainable method of food production. Are bio-inspired urban farming systems the answer?
Groundless agriculture is a great way to grow clean food in urban areas. However, sometimes spaces are too small, maintenance may require too much time and the process may be difficult for a non-experienced user. Designer Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel
is the creator of Hexagro
, a project using biomimicry techniques to create a modular aeroponic home-growing system of individual hexagon-shaped bins, inspired by the design of bees’ honeycombs. The bins can be used to grow a variety of vegetables and mimics the resource efficiency of a beehive as they can be stacked to fit any space.
I caught up with Felipe ahead of his presentation at RE•WORK Future of Food Summit
to hear more about Hexagro and the growing foodtech industry.
What was the motivation behind founding Hexagro?
Costa Rica, where Hexagro project started, is the biggest consumer of chemical pesticides for agriculture worldwide, proportionally. Unsustainable agriculture practices present immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world, leading to habitat conversion and loss especially for intensive monocultures with over 38% of the world’s land area. Agriculture sector consumes about 70% of accessible freshwater due to inefficient irrigation systems and wasteful field methods not suited to the environment.
Hexagro started as a bachelor thesis project in Product Design addressing this problematic. Using biomimicry as a design methodology, we developed a concept of a modular Urban Farming System with the shape of a “tree” mimicking the production of honey of a Honeybee nest which would allow customers to grow their own clean food in living spaces without needing fertile land (Aeroponics Technique).
Our design has been chosen as a finalist for the Biomimicry Global Food Design Challenge 2015 organized by the Biomimicry Institute, which is currently on-going with a start-up accelerator program supporting the foundation of the company.
What do you feel has been essential to the success of Hexagro so far?
Hexagro has an original approach towards urban agriculture market with biomimicry-based products that apply technological innovations as Additive Manufacturing. The Biomimicry Institute has allowed us to take different courses of social entrepreneurship with universities like Portland University and University of California with a strong sustainability focus.
Hexagro’s Modular Tree Design allows its users to grow food in an efficient and healthy way providing food for their own consumption, for trading or for selling on the Hexagro Community Platform which aims to connect urban farmers and consumers locally to tackle the problem of clean nutritious food accessibility. After the first submission at Austin, Texas last October, Hexagro was interviewed by newspapers as The Guardian highlighting our product development approach which we are currently prototyping and hoping to present to the market in October during the last contest submission at San Francisco.
How can the technology and ethos behind Hexagro be applied in other areas?
Hexagro’s Urban Farming Systems can transcend the consumer market of major cities we have defined at the moment. Further with the development of the company and the access to more funds we will develop products aimed for social needs in cases of lack of nutritious food during natural disasters, Climate Change’s draughts and war humanitarian crisis, to enable populations to produce their own food (or some portion of it) with low resources of water, energy and nutrients.
We are also planning to implement our system for educational purposes in schools or universities, for research in non-profit institutions, for social implementations as community urban farms and to generate new job opportunities for prisoners in jails, handicaps or elders.
What do you see in the future for Hexagro?
For the near future we are working to produce a new functional prototype of our system to promote our company and start a crowd-funding campaign that will allow us to produce the first batch of systems and test our community idea.
For the further future we want to incorporate new innovations to create concepts, like the use of drones for agriculture, smart lighting and vertical farms.
What new developments in foodtech can we expect to see in the next 5 years?
We believe that the future of agriculture is the incorporation of innovative technology as automation of production and quality control, vertical farming systems, permaculture and new business strategies to solve accessibility of food and waste issues.
In Hexagro we are developing consumer products for urban farming that can be easily used without needing to have experience in agriculture and plant biology. There are some companies working in devices that can adapt to different systems of hydroponics to measure the Ph, EC, and temperature of the nutrient solutions, for example. To make the growing more efficient and controlled we will embed them in our system with a mobile application that lets you monitor your system remotely.
What do you feel are the most urgent challenges within the food industry?
We think about three major challenges:
1- The impact that traditional food production is having on the environment and society’s health.
2- The accessibility to healthy food is turning into a luxury business that just few people can purchase in a daily basis.
3- Efficiency of the processes
How can those be solved with technology?
1- We need more tools to make people learn and realize about the bad impact of traditional food production. For example, an application that measures the amount of resources spent to make a fresh salad.
2- New ideas of sharing and online communities can improve the accessibility of healthy food locally, we think about a service in which you can buy certified clean food directly to your nearest producer.
3- The food industry of the future should be less about human effort and more about automation (that doesn’t harm the environment) to help to make the process more efficient.
What three things you would like to see happen in the future of food production?
One of the things that we want to see is the worldwide rise of vertical farming and urban farms, there are a lot of initiatives that are already happening to incorporate vegetable production in populated or abandoned buildings to provide food locally.
There is also a very interesting innovations in the drone sector, if this systems can be automatic for the monitoring and irrigation of a farming field the production would be of a better quality and major losses and plagues can be prevented.
Vegetable production in outer space and Mars, this topic is certainly developing and is very interesting for all the innovations it can bring back to Earth!
Felipe Hernández will be speaking at the RE•WORK Future of Food Summit in London on 21 June 2016. Other speakers include Florian Pinel, IBM Chef Watson; Richard Ballard, Growing Underground; Ian Hales Research, Bristol Robotics Lab; Kate Hofman, GrowUP Farms, and more..
Super Early Bird tickets are available until 5 February, for more information visit the event page here. The previous foodtech event sold out, book early to avoid disappointment!
Future of Food