This Indoor Garden Uses Biomimicry to Create a High-yield Solution

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Agritecture sat down with Hexagrow Urban Farming before this year’s GreenTech Conference in Amsterdam. Hexagrow Urban Farming is participating at the Vertical Farming pavilion at GreenTech 2019.

What is Hexagro, and how did it begin?

Hexagro Urban Farming is a software and hardware product-service platform to increase the accessibility of indoor farming technologies. This project started after it was presented as a Product Design thesis in Costa Rica where it gained a special mention thanks to its Biomimicry approach.

Using the Biomimicry method, Nature was the main source of inspiration for creating a solution that could offer a high-yield with efficient use of space while adapting to different indoor environments. After the project was selected as one of the finalists of the first edition of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge in 2016, I met my co-founders Arturo and Alessandro and in 2017 we established Hexagro as a Social-Benefit company in Milan. As part of Hexagro’s social mission, our know-how and automation technologies are being licensed to a social project in Colombia called Siembra Vertical that aims to provide low-cost and high-yield aeroponic solutions for traditional farmers trying to overcome climate change, soil degradation and the consequences of large-scale urbanization.

How has nature played a role in the creation of your growing system?

Nature was the main source of inspiration for the development of our first product, the Living Farming Tree (LFT). Using the Honeybee Hive’s hexagonal patterns and the 3D Node System of Trees we developed a space-filling modular system that can be configured in “tree”, horizontal and vertical geometries using the same parts. The LFT has been designed using the principles of biophilia by recalling natural elements with its design. Hexagro’s objective is to make any available indoor space productive, thus we offer a stylish product that also displays beautiful living plants growing on-site overtime and creating an emotional connection with their owner or consumer.

A lack of nature is making us sick. Urban populations spend 90% of their time indoors in environments where bad air quality and lack of greenery are compromising their health, thus leading to productivity loss at work and considerable economic implications for companies. We strive to reconnect people to nature with an indoor farming experience by guiding users through an IoT platform to perform simple plant-maintenance tasks to achieve successful harvests.

This gamified cultivation process drives employees to input data about how they feel in the workplace, and based on employee responses the LFT will recommend to harvest a particular mix of medicinal plants that can improve Sick Building Syndrome symptoms (headache, eye irritation, nausea, etc.). The LFT becomes a center of gravity in which people gather and share time close to plants inside places that before were inert and boring, ultimately engaging employees and visitors and increasing productivity thanks to the comforting presence of nature.

Who is the Living Farming Tree for, and what can it grow?

We are offering our first product, the Living Farming Tree, as a service to companies in Europe that are looking for ways to maximize their productivity by improving employee wellness at the workplace. The LFT is capable of monitoring environmental data--such as air temperature, humidity, light levels, CO2 and air flow--which are relevant for plant growth but also for a wellness assessment of an indoor space. This information is also provided to the HR manager of our customers with a report including anonymous wellness-related data from users (employees).

The system’s High-Pressure Aeroponics and LED Lighting technology is able to grow 6 plants per module and is 1.5x times faster than conventional hydroponics thanks to increased root oxygenation, all with 40% less water and 30% fewer fertilizers. Given the on-site positioning of the LFT, hyper-fresh Medicinal and Aromatic plants become 3 times more productive as they can be pruned and regrown again over 2-3 week intervals. Each farming module (kits of 4, 7 or 13 modules) can grow a different crop type by regulating light and irrigation independently from module-to-module.

Hexagro’s Living Farming Tree can be multiple products at once:

  • A natural element able to provide automated production of medicinal herbs, while saving costs of water, nutrients, light usage and maintenance fees.

  • A plug & play technology increasing workers’ wellness and productivity, thus driving higher revenue for corporate clients. Workers increased engagement by 71% and productivity by 15% based on our customer pilots results.

  • A data gathering platform to understand how workers feel indoors and how the quality of the environment affects them. Companies will be equipped with valuable information on workers’ feelings and engagement, thus remarkably improving their business activities.

What has been one of your greatest challenges to overcome as a company?

It’s hard to mention only one! I arrived in Italy 5 years ago to pursue a Master’s degree in Design & Engineering and Management & Innovation, and as a foreign student in a totally new country it was very challenging to adapt to the culture and grow professionally over the years.

At the beginning of Hexagro, the biggest challenge was to bring the right people on-board and I spent a long time trying to find the key elements to build an engaged, talented and diverse team. Another challenge was funding: we have developed the Living Farming Tree relying on personal investments, grants, donations, and awards. In September 2018 we received our first funding from Angel Investors in Switzerland due to our initial commercial activities there.

Developing new hardware and software by ourselves has not been not easy, nor has trying to do things differently and taking a path that no other company has taken before. We face all kinds of challenges every day, from economic to technical, but thanks to our persistence and our mission to reconnect people to Nature through indoor farming we have been able to move forward to create an exponential social impact in only a few years.

Our vision is a future in which anybody, anywhere can access healthy food. Agriculture has changed the path of humanity before, and we believe it can do so again!

Author Bio: Felipe Hernandez, 28, is an Industrial Designer and Social Entrepreneur born in Colombia, raised in Costa Rica and currently based in Milan, Italy. Hexagro Urban Farming is an early-stage startup founded in early 2017 with an international team of 8 people.