The Finnish technology startup iFarm recently raised US$4 million to build vertical farms for more customers across Europe and the Middle East. Using these funds, iFarm aims to help entrepreneurs and businesses set up their own urban farms—at any time, in any place.
iFarm, founded in 2017, develops autonomous farming systems to grow greens, berries, and edible flowers indoors. It sells smaller, individual growing modules, as well as vertical farms for larger-scale production.
Most urban farming companies do one of two things: grow and sell their own food or manufacture technology to assist experienced farmers, such as LED lights and robots that can monitor and harvest produce.
iFarm falls into a third, less common category. Rather than standalone technology, the company sells entire urban farming systems with built-in robotics. These systems enable customers to start farms with little to no knowledge of agriculture.
iFarm’s growing module, iFarm Cropper, is designed for grocery stores, restaurants, or homes. Their vertical farms are intended for larger spaces, like warehouses. These systems are equipped with drones and artificial intelligence that spot diseases and track plant growth. They can also be controlled by an app, iFarm Growtune, that automatically plants seeds and adjusts lighting and humidity.
Kirill Zelenski, the Managing Director of Europe at iFarm, tells Food Tank that the company’s name is reminiscent of the iPhone. With an iPhone, he says, “you don’t need to know anything… You just need to know what you want to do, and it will do it itself. Same with our farms.” He explains that a customer simply has to push a button to grow arugula, and the system knows what to do.
Urban farming companies boast several ecological, economic, and health benefits. iFarm’s technology, for instance, uses 90 percent less water and 75 percent less fertilizer compared to conventional farms, and no pesticides.
Controlled climates inside urban farms reduce the risk of air and water pollution, while allowing for more reliable yields. iFarm reports that 100 percent of their seeds sprout.
Indoor farms can also exist anywhere. The urban farming company Square Roots, for example, grows greens in the heart of Brooklyn. This flexibility cuts down on land use—which is increasingly sparse—and improves access to fresh food in urban areas.
iFarm’s founder, Alex Lyskovsky, decided to start the company for exactly that reason: his hometown in Siberia lacked access to fresh food. Now, thanks to iFarm, says Zelenski, “Even sitting in Finland, I can grow—for example—tomatoes like they would be grown in Sicily.”
Zelenski imagines a world where proximity to farmland no longer dictates where people reside. “Our idea is that it will change the world and how people are living. Because of the possibility to build farms in every house, you can live wherever,” Zelenski tells Food Tank.
Zelinski believes that autonomous farming companies—particularly those that sell already-programmed systems—have the potential to radically reshape the industry. “Modern farmers,” as he calls them, won’t necessarily need to know how to farm.
However, there are downsides. Zelenski notes that iFarm’s drones reduce the need for labor by 800 hours per month, which boosts efficiency and saves farm owners money—but could also threaten job security for farm workers.
iFarm isn’t the only company selling urban farms. Manhattan-based Farm.One offers everything from single-plant hydroponic units to entire vertical farming setups. InFarm, based in Berlin, installs its modular setups in grocery stores. And companies like Agrilution, Rise Gardens, and Aspara sell in-home hydroponic systems.
As for iFarm, the company plans to put half of its recent funding towards scaling up in Europe and the Middle East, 30 percent into research and development, and the remaining 20 percent into internal management and hiring.
The company plans to leave a big mark on the agriculture industry. “We think our technology will change not just [farmers’] work, it will change the world totally,” Zelenski tells Food Tank. “Our idea totally disrupts the industry.”