Marco lives in Heidelberg, Germany. In 2017, he visited New York to attend an international event on urban agriculture. From this experience, he began on a journey that changed his life.
He has since developed a vertical growing system that can provide multiple grow spaces in a very dense way. This vertical farming model uses lego-like parts assembled into ring segments that can be stacked to form a tower-shaped barrel. Each tower is supported by a 3D liquid-based circulation system, which provides an optimal distribution of nutrients to plants that maximize yields.
This vertical farming model offers an alternative designed to grow more food with less, whether that be less land, less natural resources, or less labor. Considering the increasing interest in sustainable agriculture, the lack of water in many parts of the world, and limitations due to the pandemic, Marco’s work in this field has not gone unnoticed.
How it all started
Marco studied business administration and is not a horticulturist by training. During his studies, he worked for a few companies doing macro-programming.
By the peak of the dotcom bubble in 1999, Marco had worked on a few significant gigs. With time and experience, he was able to consolidate his position as an established back-end developer.
In 2009, Marco started an IT consulting business with friends. It was growing fast, but it was far from home and required a long commute. With the arrival of a newborn, Marco decided to leave the company in 2012. He has since become a freelance back-end programmer while working from home.
However, working from home caused him to lack creative stimulation. While looking for a new personal project, he stumbled upon a podcast discussing aquaponics, the latter of which “could easily heal world hunger.” Attracted by this idea, Marco decided to rent a basement at the city council of Heidelberg Bahnstadt, a city with the world’s largest passive house settlement. He then set up an aquaponic system of his own.
With time, Marco discovered that he had initially underestimated the amount of ammonia that fish produce as they grew. He could not counterbalance with a proper amount of plants to resolve the issue as space started to lack.
To optimize what he had, he started to look into vertical farming. “I thought it would be easy. It’s only horticultural stuff,” he said. “But I couldn’t find anything handy and flexible enough to serve my needs,” he added.
Marco, therefore, decided to build a vertical solution of his own. “It worked, but it was dripping and was a real mess,” he admitted. He knew that he needed to expand his horizons in search of better solutions.
After attending the NYC AgTech Week in 2015, Marco realized the full potential of urban agriculture and vertical farming. “Urban areas will be the space where most people will live in the future, and we will need to grow food there too,” Marco said.
Urbanization is likely to accelerate in the coming years, despite the current pandemic context. “By mid-century, roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of the world’s population will be living in urban areas,” according to the World Urbanization Prospects’ report.
To grow food efficiently in the city, you need to grow 3D. – Marco
Thus, with a head full of new ideas and stimulated by the potential of urban agriculture, Marco decided to invent his 3D-NFT vertical farming system. In layman’s terms, NTF stands for Nutrient Film Technique, commonly used in hydroponic agriculture (soilless agriculture). A 3D-NFT relates to how you feed the plants in a 3D system and environment.
See below the comparison between a 2D and a 3D-NFT setup
Marco explained that his precision-guided drip irrigation within the system is optimized to feed plants. When applying professional horticulture practices, this system helps increase the number of plants per space available in a 3-dimensional room.
“If you think of 14 segments, put together in a barrel shape and being stacked 2.4 meters high, you could grow 168 plants per barrel per growth cycle,” he said. “Professional growers can manage up to 17 growth cycles per barrel, per year,” he added.
In the video below, Marco explains his system in detail.
For Marco, there are models used by some companies, such as Aerofarms, that appear to be 3D. However, it consists mostly of stacked 2D systems made of shelves or racks that create many challenges like managing multiple microclimates in small spaces, using grow lights on every level, and working harder to reach the plants. Moreover, the electricity usage to imitate the sun will be restricted mostly to microgreens and leafy greens.
Marco designed his system’s modularity to allows growers to personalize their setup and to optimize indoor productivity per cubic meter, depending on ceiling height. This modularity type also helps following the best packaging practices when shipping the product to clients.
Once set up, the shape of the system aims to absorb as much sunlight as possible. However, it is still difficult to get equal natural light on a round surface. To overcome this problem, Marco is collaborating with a product partner to make the vertical farming tower rotary and automated. “Sometimes, solutions and fine-tunings come from product partners. It helps weed out the burden of creating everything alone,” he admitted.
Marco’s 3D system gives you a lot of freedom regarding how you can configure your growth space. The average number of plants per square meter is 60 on 1,20m wide aisles. In comparison, the best 2D-NFT systems, without any aisle, would grow about 22 plants per square meter.
Marco operates on a startup mode. Self-funded from personal loans (when necessary) and with his products’ turnover alone, he has yet to benefit from outside investment.
He is currently focusing on designing, building, and testing his vertical farming system by himself in the family’s garage to save on operational costs. By choosing to manufacture his system locally, Marco aims to reduce the environmental impact of transportation.
For Marco, his 3D vertical farming system should be complementary to different applications or horticultural solutions. “Given to an end-user without any horticultural background, he may not reach the expected results. You have to add certain things that the target groups could use to help them grow plants successfully,” he said.
That is why he believes he should work with product partners, as it’s all about personalizing the vertical farming solutions and providing proper customer support. Future application of Marco’s system will be for growing larger fruit crops such as apples or plums trees, all while using only a 2-inch net pot.
He has patented his vertical farming system in 2015 in Germany, which has since been extended to South Korea, Japan, China, the USA, and Europe.
It really took off this year . It was all ignited with the beginning of Coronavirus pandemic, with larger international pre-paid orders and the start of the first product partners starting to offer the first actual solutions. – Marco
Nevertheless, there was already an increase in demand for such solutions. “The highest demand for vertical farming systems comes from the Middle East countries who suffer from [the international community] sanctions or feel they could suffer more if those sanctions increase,” Marco said. “They are investing heavily in vertical farming technologies,” he added.
Although these opportunities are concrete and most likely lucrative, Marco stressed potential political and economic repercussions in dealing with some countries. “Right now, I’m shipping my products to Lebanon and Iran. Let’s see how it plays out when I’ll send my next pallet to the United States. I have no ideas on how it will go,” he added.
About KPIs and system data
In 2017, Marco started to work with a government horticultural research facility in his area. Each year, findings of the different projects covered in this institution are published. “It was the first place in Germany to have a dedicated soilless greenhouse. Before that, everything was either substrate or soil-based greenhouses,” Marco explained.
The research facility integrated Marco’s vertical farming system, amongst other vertical farming solutions for testing and research purposes.
Although he acknowledged such an opportunity’s benefits, he felt that the experience did not go as expected. Professional horticulturists conducted the research, but none of them had practical experience in soilless horticulture. At the end of their study, those horticulturalists claimed that all systems, including Marco’s, had yielded 50% less than soil-based agriculture.
I can guarantee that I have the grow space for you, and the results can be fantastic! But I can’t guarantee your skills or knowledge as a [soilless] grower. – Marco
With regard to soilless horticulture, the concept of something called a soup is involved in the process.
The soup is a unique combination of nutrients and water, which feed the plants through the hydroponic or aeroponic systems. As mentioned in an article about Vertiponic, the knowledge required to develop a good soup is essential. It helps to feed the plants adequately to reach optimal growth and yield.
For more information about soilless horticulture, Marco suggests the following book:
Greenhouse Horticulture: Technology for Optimal Crop Production.
On sustainability and moving forward
Marco explained that using vertical farming systems in urban areas opens the doors for multiple possibilities. “There’s lots of room for creativity, especially when you start to involve circular-economy aspects,” he said. “But we need more pioneers that are ready to try things and take risks,” he added.
Part of the concept was to use one type of plastic only (with no compound or mixed materials). The material needed to be of the highest quality and durability for the job and can later be recycled 100% into new parts with the same properties. Marco designed his vertical farming system according to Cradle-to-Cradle principles. The material used for the tower is food safe and made of Acrylonitrile styrene acrylate (ASA), the highest and hardest UV resistant.
Marco intentionally selected ASA as it is a raw material with a high value. “It should never end up in a landfill as a waste,” he insisted. “Each piece has a Cradle-to-Cradle logo carved on the inside and should be sent back to me or a company who can properly recycle it,” he added.
Marco just finished a major upgrade by adding new components for more robustness and accuracy. The relaunch of the third iteration of his system is planned for the end of 2020.
Additionally, he has designed a new modular called WallSystem that can be used indoors and outdoors to bring even more green and wilderness into our urban areas. The WallSystem will be available as of Spring 2021.