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Start-up Idea of the Year: Growing Vegetables in a Shipping Container

2024-01-09 The three Leuphana students Martin Auer, Joshua Biron and Anabel Burchill, have discovered their passion for agriculture. Alongside their bachelor's degree, they founded the CubeCrops project. Their idea is to supply people in cities with sustainably grown food. The crops are grown locally in converted freight containers using the vertical farming method. In November, the concept was presented as start-up idea of the year at the Lünale, the annual award ceremony for successful entrepreneurship in the district of Lüneburg.

Vertical farming allows a higher yield to be produced on a smaller area. ©CubeCrops
Vertical farming allows a higher yield to be produced on a smaller area.

The spark that ignited the idea came from a simple realisation. "Joshua and I had noticed that the agriculture that supplies us with food every day looks very different to the romanticised image that is so often conveyed," explains Martin Auer. Conventional, industrial agriculture causes environmental damage through the use of pesticides and pollutant emissions due to long transport routes. And in the end, an incredible amount of the food produced in this way is disposed of because it has already spoilt on long transport routes or has been produced in excess of actual demand. That's why the two were looking for a solution to how vegetable farming could work with many smaller, decentralised, local facilities.

This is where the principle of vertical farming comes into play. Plants are grown on shelves one above the other to save space. This allows a higher yield to be produced on a smaller area. In addition, vertical farming is usually carried out in controlled cultivation environments. The plants are supplied with the necessary nutrients by a nutrient solution. At the same time, plant lights and climate control systems ensure an optimal growing environment. Compared to conventional field cultivation, this enables significantly faster and season-dependent plant growth, completely eliminates the need for pesticides and uses up to 97% less water.

Solving the challenges of high energy consumption

However, the idea is not new. "There are already companies that use this principle," says Joshua Biron. "But they are based in the USA, Asia or on the Arabian Peninsula." In Germany and Europe, this concept is not yet as widespread or existing companies with a similar approach have given up again in recent months because their business model was no longer profitable given the rise in energy costs. "Above all, there is a lack of resilient business models that work regardless of rising energy prices," says Joshua. To solve the challenge of high energy consumption, the founding team is pursuing approaches for utilising industrial waste heat and technical energy efficiency improvements.

Based on these ideas, Martin and Joshua developed their first sketches and registered for the start-up camp at the Startup Port. There they took the opportunity to develop the concept further over the course of a weekend.

The revised concept now envisages converting discarded shipping containers in such a way that plants can be grown on shelves - ranging from leafy greens and herbs to strawberries or algae. "Leafy greens, i.e. plants whose leaves are harvested for consumption, are particularly suitable for this form of cultivation," says Joshua. "This allows for around ten harvest periods per year. With fruit or vegetables, where you always have to wait for a fruit to ripen, you can't achieve that many cycles." In addition, such plants are usually larger and more complicated to grow. That comes at the expense of efficiency in the space-limited containers.

An initial prototype has already been developed. The team's contacts in the Lüneburg start-up ecosystem were useful to this end: They found premises for the development of their prototype at "Utopia Lüneburg" and received help with programming a control unit at FabLab Lüneburg. A disused refrigerated display case initially served as a mini container. " Coincidence helped us," says Martin, "When we came out of Utopia in Lüneburg city centre one evening, we found the refrigerated display case that someone had just put out on the street as bulky waste. It was ideal for us to use for our experiments with plant cultivation in a controlled growth environment after a small conversion."

Collaboration with medium-sized companies

The award at the Lünale and the subsequent media coverage brought the team quite a bit of attention. Shortly after the event, SMEs from the region contacted the team expressing an interest in working together. Cooperation with industrial companies is particularly promising for the team, as the waste heat generated in the companies can be used to heat the plants, especially in winter. The containers would be set up on the partners' company premises for that purpose. In addition to energy efficiency, there would also be a further advantage: The containers would be placed on already sealed surfaces and no new green areas would have to be sealed for them. At the same time, the cultivation site would be close to consumers, but would not take away valuable living or recreational space from residents in city centres.

Meanwhile, fellow student Anabel Burchill has joined the team and is working diligently with her colleagues to optimise the prototype. The three of them are already planning something bigger: preliminary negotiations are taking place regarding the purchase and construction of the first proper shipping container. However, the construction of the systems is generally planned to be outsourced at a later date.

As far as the founding team is concerned, the organisation of the community is the focus of the entire concept. Joshua explains: "We have learnt a lot from community-supported agriculture, where the profits are shared among the members." And Martin adds: "With us, participants regularly receive vegetables from hyper-local, sustainable and pollutant-free cultivation."

Anyone interested in supporting CubeCrops with the implementation of a pilot project can contact the team by email at: info@cubecrops.de.