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Increased crop yield, quality and sustainability through collaborative innovation in hydroponics

Posted on 29/01/2018

Saturn Bioponics have developed a commercial 3D growing system for sustainable crop production with KTN support and Innovate UK funding.

A key challenge facing agriculture is the need to produce 70% more food by 2050. Hydroponic growing systems involve growing plants without soil, using nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Hydroponics can reduce pressures on land, decrease chemical use, and support urban farming, helping to boost UK food security and economic growth. The global market for hydroponics is projected to reach £325 million by 2020 (Markets and Markets, 2016).

When developing a commercial hydroponic system, key parameters for plant growth, nutrient supply, as well as flavour and post-harvest characteristics need to be optimised for individual crops and varieties in order to reduce costs and maximise yields. Saturn Bioponics needed help to understand these key parameters to enable them to develop a new modular 3D system that can grow leafy salads, vegetables, herbs and soft fruit.

Combining hydroponic methods and vertical crop production

The new modular 3D system developed and patented by Saturn Bioponics combines hydroponic methods and vertical crop production.

This system provides a step change in agricultural practice by enabling a yield increase of up to 350% per unit of land and reducing labour costs. Other benefits include clean crop harvesting, reduced environmental impact from pesticide usage and soil erosion, no water waste or polluting run-off, and elimination of fungal disease in root zones. The 3D growing system is ‘price competitive’ compared with horizontal growing systems and offers a significantly shorter payback period. It can be installed in new or existing polytunnels, glasshouses, and other covered areas, to a height and planting density of the grower’s choice.

Saturn Bioponics have also won numerous awards for their technology, including the Innovate UK SME Innovation Award 2016.

How did KTN and Innovate UK help?

KTN has helped Saturn Bioponics build relationships with key collaborators (the Universities of Lancaster, Nottingham, Birmingham and Manchester) and has provided key support to help Saturn Bioponics win over £780K in R&D funding from KTN, Defra, Innovate UK, BBSRC and the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI).

These collaborations and the R&D funding have helped Saturn Bioponics develop a detailed understanding of key production variables, and have allowed them to optimise their 3D modular system and build and test prototypes expanding from preliminary experiments to commercial trials in glasshouses and polytunnels.

As a result, Saturn Bioponics have been able to develop a commercialisation “package” of final products and variety-specific “instruction manuals”. The support provided by KTN and by Innovate UK grants have enabled Saturn Bioponics to grow from one employee in 2012, to 5 permanent staff in 2017.

Alex Fisher, CEO of Saturn Bioponics said “Support from KTN and Innovate UK has enabled us to focus on R&D for 5 years, ensuring we developed our technology to optimal commercial readiness, before approaching the market. It also allowed us to resist taking outside investment during our pre-commercial phase. We could not have achieved all that we have without their support and we look forward to working with them into the future as we look to develop other novel agricultural technologies”

Where next?

Saturn Bioponics have successfully demonstrated this system to a number of growers resulting in the sale and installation of commercial systems for oriental vegetables, strawberries, specialist herbs and ornamentals. Currently, ca. 45 growers have expressed an interest in the system, with sales of £3-4 million forecast for 2017/18.

A demonstration system has been set up in northern Italy and is currently showcasing winter lettuce and herb production. Further crop trials and demonstration sites are planned in Spain and the Netherlands. Saturn Bioponics are also developing international links with growers in South America, USA, and China. They are creating an additional service offering to deliver their hydroponics expertise through consultancy and sale of consumables to growers of any crop type worldwide.

You can find out more about Saturn Bioponics and their modular 3D system here.

If you would like to discuss opportunities and support for innovation in agri-food you can contact KTN’s Agri-Food Team.

 

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