When Ray Poh returned to Singapore in 2015 after being away for many years, he harboured a desire to carve out a career in a green and sustainable industry.
"I wanted to do something that is forward-looking and that allows me to contribute towards the local economy not just financially, but also meaningfully. Plus, I felt that vertical farming and hydroponics are interesting concepts that modernise agriculture," says the 36-year-old.
"Farming is typically the furthest thing from our minds as we live in an urban concrete jungle, albeit one filled with greenery. This isn't an industry most people want to enter but the prospect of provide food for the nation interested me."
He turned to the Internet to learn how to build a small prototype farm and grow his knowledge of plant science. Three years later, he launched Artisan Green, an indoor hydroponics farm in Kallang with an operating system powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.
Built the current farm on his own
There is a lot to appreciate about indoor farming: it uses up to 90 percent less water, requires a lot less land and cultivates produce free of pesticides. And as a local farm, Artisan Green takes a short time to deliver its produce to shelves, which means product freshness.
Ray had no prior farming experience—he used to be the Chief Operating Officer of Weike Gaming, which manufactures slot machines, electronic table games and casino systems, and the Vice President of Business Development at an affiliated company that runs slot machine operations in casinos in Macau. But that didn't discourage him from literally building Artisan Green by himself for the most part.
"After attending courses and reading up on the industry, I went about planning the farm layout and contacting equipment suppliers around the world. As I was the only person in the farm at that point in time, I was the main contractor and built the farm myself with the help of external vendors," he says.
"I made it a point to build the entire racking system by hand to understand the ins and outs of the farm build and gain valuable insight on how to design and build [future] farms."
He also started Artisan Green without the help of investors and is its sole shareholder.
"Due to my previous job in Macau, I was able to secure a deal that listed our company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and started the farm with the money obtained from the project, which was a six-figure sum. I was also able to obtain government grants from the Singapore Food Agency that helped defray the startup cost," he lets on.
While he had chosen Kallang for its proximity to where he lives and a "good rental rate", the company is currently in the midst of relocating and is building a new 5,000sqm farm in Jurong that will not only be closer to larger warehouses, but be able to scale production by 25 times.
AI and automation allow for "instantaneous informed decisions"
Artisan Green grows produce using vertical farming techniques. Vertical farms utilise multiple layers in order to increase the number of horizontal or vertical growing planes in a system, with the only limitation being ceiling height of the space.
"Our current farm space allows a six-layer system that grows baby leaf greens, but our new farm will allow a 10-layer system that grows adult greens, which are taller. This means a maximised amount of growing points in any given area," Ray says.
The farm also uses a digital farming operating system powered by AI and automation.
"AI and automation came about as a necessity to increase productivity and efficiency. It reduces the time needed to manage the farm and run experiments as it recognises and processes data at a speed and volume that allows us to make instantaneous informed decisions."
In addition, it uses data analytics to measure, mix and dose out nutrients for each type of crop at every stage of its growth to ensure high-quality produce.
"In the beginning, our nutrient profiles were determined by off-the-shelf nutrients that we buy directly from suppliers. However, over time, we decided to mix every individual nutrient compound ourselves based on our own formulations. This allows us to tweak the profiles to the optimal levels needed for the particular crop . It was a lot of trial and error and required multiple iterations of experiments as we only had a base nutrient formulation to work off on," he explains.
And in implementing technology to enhance their output, the company is currently developing a "digital twin" of a plant. With a stored database of parameters, they will be able simulate the plants’ reactions to different climate conditions and nutrient formulas and observe the plants’ responses.
"Through this, we aim to cut trial times by more than half, which will in turn enable us to push out new crops in a shorter time frame and roll out new products."
Opportunities for new players in the space
Given that Artisan Green now puts out one ton of produce a month and supplies supplies supermarkets such as FairPrice Finest, Little Farms and Redmart, it's safe to say that the venture has found success. Ray attributes a part of it to building relationships.
"A challenge I had was understanding how supermarkets and the hotel, restaurant, café (HORECA) sector work—there are many operational intricacies that I did not realise as a consumer. Thankfully, with my network of family, friends and colleagues, we were able to list our products in some of the most prominent stores in Singapore," he says.
"I have always understood the importance of networking and starting my own business reinforced this point even further. It has made me learn to embrace both the highs and lows of trying to get the company off the ground."
And to those looking to join the agri-tech industry, he reckons there are still opportunities for new players in the space—particularly since the Government lends plenty of support.
"There are still many inefficiencies when it comes to vertical farming at this point in time, such as the optimisation of electricity usage, cooling methods and labour efficacy. There are opportunities to solve these issues and help us move to the next stage of revolution in agriculture," he asserts.
"Government grants have allowed us to develop our technologies at a faster pace than previously. These schemes allow people with a vision or idea to manage their risks while investing for the future."
An aim to help lower food costs and grow "interesting crops"
It should be noted that Ray's efforts are in line with the Government’s '30 by 30′ goal, which is the aim for Singapore to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030. And while he is happy to contribute to Singapore's self-sufficiency, he also hopes to help lower food costs.
"Whenever I see our products on the shelves among imported produce, I can’t help but feel a twinge of pride. It makes me feel like we need to do more to increase our output and be more efficient in our processes so that we can bring down the prices of our products to reach out to the wider local community," he says.
At present, in addition to a range of baby leaf greens, Artisan Green also produces herbs including basil, chives, coriander, dill, mint, parsley, rosemary and thyme. The company will be able to feed 2,500 households of four every month when the new farm site is complete at year end.
And apart from plans to expand overseas with its software system, it is also working on growing "interesting crops".
"They include the ice plant as well as the oyster leaf, which is a vegan version of the oyster. Such crops provide a challenge as most speciality crops are not grown hydroponically and there is very little literature on their growing conditions and methods. We will have to conduct internal trials and test out the best method for us to deliver a product of exceptional quality," Ray reveals.
His piece of advice of to aspiring entrepreneurs? Don't give up and don't stop learning.
"Firstly, most problems have solutions. Also, we should never stop learning as we don’t know what we don’t know."