Interview with Indoor Farming Industry Leader Seven Steps To Heaven

Meet Gertjan and Lianne Meeuws, Founders of Seven Steps To Heaven

In the world of indoor farming, you would be hard pressed to find someone with more expertise than Gertjan and Lianne Meeuws, founders of the innovative start-up Seven Steps To Heaven. With decades of experience collecting horticultural data, consulting on best practices, and running successful indoor farms, they have been involved in the evolution of this industry from an early stage.

Gertjan and the SSTH team were so generous in hosting the AVF at its headquarters in Eindhoven for the 2019 annual strategy meeting. We wanted to take the opportunity to showcase their fantastic new company and the work it is doing on its mission, “to contribute to a world where everybody will have access to secure and safe food.” We interviewed Gertjan to get an expert’s perspective on current and future trends in the industry.

Introducing Seven Steps To Heaven: Feeding The World in a Smart Way

You have a long track record in this industry. When did you first see the importance of CEA?

GM: My wife Lianne and I started our first company back in 1989. We worked for 5 years in a row on a big data project, collecting data from over 500 measuring fields in modern greenhouses all over the world. We used this data to develop mathematical models and algorithms that explain and predict the growth of crops. Applying this know-how in practise showed that even the best greenhouses are still interacting so much with nature, that the full potential of plants can’t be reached. This goes for yield, taste and nutritional values. In 2005 we decided to design the best possible environment for plants to grow: our first prototype of an indoor farm. Instead of copying nature, we applied what we had learned in the decades before about algorithms, light, evaporation and temperature.

How wide is your reach at SSTH- do you primarily focus on supporting start-ups in the Netherlands? Where else in the world have you delivered projects?

GM: We have quite a track record as pioneers in CEA. Over the last 15 years we have been involved in building 10 indoor farms in The Netherlands, USA and South Africa. We were the founders of PlantLab in 2010; I became the CEO, we established an exclusive collaboration with Syngenta, and bought a 5-acre former retail warehouse that we transformed into our new headquarters and R&D facility. Next to that we opened an office in Silicon Valley. We operationally left PlantLab in December 2014 after a breach of confidence in the board.

Over the years we have built different R&D and commercial projects. At Seven Steps To Heaven – our latest start-up in the field of CEA – our team focusses on how to scale up indoor farms. Scaling-up is necessary and possible thanks to our unique laminar airflow system with plenum walls in combination with our smart LED-heat dissipation application. We want to have large areas per layer – for instance 50×100 meter – in order to be able to apply the logistical systems from the modern greenhouse industry that we are very familiar with; such as mobile gullies for leafy crops, moving ebb-flood tables for potted plants and high wire systems with electric trolleys for growing tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. We are happy to partner up with experts in any specific field or market, in order to benefit from mutual experience and knowhow and to apply our proprietary indoor farming technology.

How is Seven Steps To Heaven working to change the public perspective on indoor farming?

GM: Indoor farming is much more than a new type of agriculture: it introduces a new supply chain that is able to grow local for local, thus creating local jobs, focussing on yield and even more on quality specs, such as taste and nutritional levels of food or levels of active ingredients for medicinal applications.

The current agricultural supply-chain is outdated: growing crops where they grow well and transporting them all over the globe. The current model includes a huge mis-match in supply and demand. Traditional breeding companies are focussing on yield and resistances against drought, pests and diseases. We have to redesign and focus on the needs of the increasing world population.

The mission of agriculture must be: feeding the world in a smart way. This must result in a very close collaboration of experts in the fields of health, pharma, nutrition and agriculture. Everybody who visits our farm at the 7th floor of a former Philips factory building in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and smells and tastes what we are growing, is instantly convinced that this is the future of agriculture. No doubt.

How do you select the technologies included in your toolkit?

GM: Our technology covers all the needs of an indoor farm: a growing system (e.g. eb-flood tables or high-wire for tomatoes); our unique LED-system with hybrid heat dissipation; our HVAC-system based on a laminar airflow created with plenum-walls; irrigation and fertilizer systems; and, of course, all the software needed to operate and control the farm. Our server holds a library with growing-scripts and uploads the setpoints that come with these scripts to the PLCs of the HVAC, LED-lighting and irrigation. Although the combination of technology is especially designed for indoor farms, the total toolkit is built up from pumps, valves, coils etcetera that are available all over the world.

This is a great advantage with regards to spare-parts and it allows local installing companies to become our partner in building and maintaining our indoor farms. Our patented laminar airflow technology in combination with the heat dissipation of the LED-system creates a very equal pattern of temperature and crop-evaporation over a distance of even more than 50 meters between the plenum walls. Our farms are not a copy of nature but designed according to the preferences of plants.

What are some business opportunities that you are excited about this year?

GM: We were very excited about Professor [Toyoki] Kozai’s invitation to write two chapters for his latest book called Smart Plant Factories, published in December 2018. We are excited about a number of indoor farming projects in remote areas and about some relevant opportunities in the field of botanical medicines. Happy to say that indoor farming is becoming more and more economically feasible for many applications, and at the same time, there is still so much to be discovered at the crossing of biology and technology.

Indoor Farming: The Third Level of Agriculture

What are the keys to creating a successful vertical farming start up?

Most of the technical and growing mistakes that are being made in indoor farms are the same as have been made in greenhouses for decades. Without the experience of growing successfully in a greenhouse, every vertical farming adventure is too big a risk. Next to that, indoor farming is much more than just a new agricultural method; together with a different perception of taste and nutrition and, with a local for local approach, it will disrupt many supply chains. Larger companies most of the time are not good in disruption: they are way out of their comfort-zones and need a different management approach. Based on experience we can say we have become experts in helping a multinational to deal with disruptive changes. We suggest them to set up a small team with members from both parties. The team needs a certain freedom to operate – not being part of the regular governance structure – in order to be able to start something new, that will become part of the mainstream of the company after a start-up period of three years.

How important will the use of renewable sources of energy become for VF?

GM: Ha, that’s a very interesting question. For sure, we will need different energy sources than fossil fuels in the next decades, and they could include natural sources as well as nuclear. Let us hope that this over-heated climate change discussion will turn into a more down-to-earth approach with rational rather than emotional solutions.

How can indoor farming better support traditional agriculture?

GM: We see indoor farming as a third level of agriculture, next to agriculture in the open field and in different forms of greenhouses. Each of them can be beneficial to feeding the world in a smart way. Growing sources of carbo-hydrates, proteins and botanical fats can very well be done on a large scale in the open field, at least for the time being. This produce is less perishable and can be transported easily of longer distances and time.

A higher level of nutrition can be grown in greenhouses, at least at those places where greenhouses are well applicable: not at the polar circle, not in too hot areas, not near the centres of our cities. Indoor farming can grow food at remote places. Indoor farming can produce food according to the highest nutritional standards: safe, secure and at a guaranteed level of vitamins and secondary metabolites. We can also support agriculture in the open field and in greenhouses: for instance, by speeding up their breeding programs and by propagating extremely vital seedlings, cuttings and grafts.

What will decide which operations will succeed over the next 20 years?

GM: The next generation of systems that work together in order to feed the world in a smart way is borderless and endless. We need an amalgam of everything that we already know, and we need minds to be open to discover much more. One of my favourite speeches is the commencement speech of Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005 where he ends with: Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. That is exactly what we should do.

Need to find out more?

Visit Seven Steps To Heaven on the web:

Need to hear more?

Watch a video of Gertjan speaking at TEDXJohannesburg last year:

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