Interview with Maarten Vandecruys for SDG #11

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Maarten Vandecruys

Founder & CTO

Urban Crop Solutions

UCS logo green

Maarten Vandecruys

Founder & CTO

Author Biography

Maarten Vandecruys is the Founder and CTO of Urban Crop Solutions. After graduating from Vlerick Business School in 2014, he started Urban Crop Solutions. During his endeavour to find solutions for the challenges global plant production is faced with, he started using technology to increase crop quality while minimising our planet’s resources. In 2017, Maarten was invited to give a TED Talk to highlight the impact that globalisation and the modern food supply chain has on the planet, and how indoor farming alleviates this burden.

Urban Crop Solutions combines factory engineering and indoor plant biology to offer end-to-end solutions for Indoor Vertical Farming. Based on 7 years of research and real-life trials in their own research centre, Urban Crop Solutions helps clients select the right plant varieties with the right growth recipe for the requirements of their crop or end-product. Urban Crop Solutions designs, manufactures, and installs automated Plant Factories that can scale to the needs of any business. Their team helps you in your journey to yield and support your first harvest.

Q1. What was your company’s unique approach in integrating technology to achieve UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)?

At Urban Crop Solutions, our foremost mission is to contribute to making the world a better place for all those that live on it. We achieve this by integrating indoor vertical farming into supply chains. Indoor farming itself contributes directly to several of the SDG’s – of which include but are not limited to SDG 3: Good Health & Wellbeing, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption & Production, and SDG 15: Life on Land.

Indoor farming grows plants in completely controlled and closed environments, requiring zero use of any chemicals or pesticides. The food is moreover grown close to the point of consumption, thus reducing food miles and the need for long periods of refrigeration – which has both a negative impact on the environment and on the nutritional content of food. Furthermore, indoor farming requires 95% less water than traditional agriculture – a factor of particular interest in areas with water scarcity.

However, we also believe that to achieve true sustainability, solutions must be approached holistically. Our mission and vision, therefore, does not end at bringing the production of high-quality food closer to the point of consumption, but is to make the entire production process as circular as possible by also producing the inputs required to run an indoor farm – such as electricity, recycled water, fertiliser, and CO2.

We have achieved this by prioritising our in-house R&D and making contract research a core component of our business model and offering. We now work with key stakeholders in both SMEs and larger corporations to improve their sustainable practices. And as well within several research consortiums with the ultimate goal of making agriculture more circular, and thus, our cities and communities more sustainable.

 

Q2. What are some examples of SDG-focused projects that your company is currently working on?

Through our indoor vertical farming technology alone, we focus on several SDGs by optimising the nutritional value of plants, reducing the water consumption per kilo by 95% compared with traditional agriculture, and installing our technology close to the point of consumption or utilisation, depending on the plant application.

We currently have multiple R&D projects on a wide variety of crops to contribute to a well-balanced diet, or for use across the pharma and processing industry. Our systems, moreover, can be installed anywhere – including abandoned or restorative buildings, thus contributing to urban regeneration.

 

Q3. What are the most difficult challenges your company and other companies face generally in the implementation/adoption of new sustainable technology?

As with any nascent industry, open and close collaboration is necessary. It is important to communicate openly and operate with a collaborative approach rather than one with IP ownership as the end-goal, especially where sustainability is concerned.

However, as the Triple Bottom Line dictates, to achieve true and lasting impact on (1) People and (2) Planet – economic performance and thus (3) Profit, must be monitored to ensure the longevity of a product or solution, and essentially any positive impact on the environment.

 

Q4. Tell me about a time your sustainable tech helped another company realize their SDG goals.

For one of our customers in food processing, who produces and supplies packaged herbs, we looked at their entire value chain to find cost optimisations.

We not only found a way to optimise costs through transportation (by producing on-site), but as well through eliminating the process of washing and drying the herbs. As with indoor farming, everything is grown in controlled environments, without any use of pesticides, and therefore does not require washing.

Combined with higher yields, we essentially achieved a successful business case for our customer, while offering the consumer a healthier product. Having proven successful, we then replicated this process for a global retailer, and achieved similar results.

 

Q5. What is the biggest challenge your company has handled while enabling your sustainable tech accessible to different communities?

When delivering a solution like ours, it is imperative to always keep in mind local differences, even if addressing global challenges. As the challenges will vary based on geographic location. For example, it is important to keep in mind differences in water quality from one area to another, the consistency of electricity supply, or the affordability of the end-product by the local consumer. That’s why our biologists and tech team are involved from the get-go in our sales process, to ensure that we provide the right solution for the local market.

 

Q6. Cost-effective sustainable tech can be lifesaving and planet-saving approach. What actions your company takes to make your sustainable tech economical and a fit for the large-scale adoption?

We are well aware that if financial sustainability cannot be achieved, no impact can be generated. We have therefore, since we went-to-market with our first product, always prioritised sustainable design in our technology, while focusing our R&D on maximising useable outputs and generating our own inputs.

In 2020, we upgraded and went-to-market with our 2nd generation ModuleX plant factory. A scalable solution, with a patented rotating bench carousel to increase efficiency and maximise return on investment, so that our clients can grow and scale-up as the market grows.

We can see that as our technology matures and adoption of our technology increases, we have started to benefit from the economies of scale. This results in higher return-on-investments for our clientele and a growing addressable market.

 

Q7. What do you believe will be a global, long-term, impact of your sustainable tech integration?

Globalisation has allowed us to access all plants year-round. While however, neglecting the impact of this on the planet through transportation and unsustainable practices, as well as the quality of the produce.

We want, with our technology, to mitigate all of this by allowing consumers to access plants for any application, that have been grown with minimal water usage, zero pesticide use, and no agricultural runoff – right on their doorstep. Thus, turning food miles into food steps!

 

Q8. What’s your vision for the sustainable tech industry and your company’s role in it?

Throughout the past years, we have been happy to see an increase in the number of companies (that include both start-ups and established corporations) interested in our technology. It is our belief that in-depth collaboration with various stakeholders across the market is the only way to achieve long-lasting success. The fact that the SDGs are guiding organisations, governments, and even investors in their decision-making is a great added-value and gives us the belief that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

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Female Empowerment in the Digital Age

Dr. Laura Bechthold is a social scientist and innovation professional from Munich. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Friedrichshafen Institute for Family Entrepreneurship at Zeppelin University, she works on questions regarding responsibility and decision paradigms of family entrepreneurs. As the Director of Science Services at Philoneos GmbH, she supports family fi rms in establishing organizational structures for innovation. Laura holds a BA in Business Administration (Zeppelin University), a Master of Business Research (LMU Munich) and an MSc in Sustainability Science and Policy (Maastricht University). Her PhD research focused on unconscious biases in female entrepreneurship. Her fi eld experimental study on female entrepreneurial role models was awarded twice at international conferences. Laura’s passion lies in building bridges between science and practice to foster an open dialogue and co-create solutions for an inclusive, sustainable and prospering society. Therefore, she contributes to EUTECH by writing about entrepreneurial challenges and opportunities for contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

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