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Circular Economy Interview with HEXAGRO - Accessible Urban-Vertical Farming

Living Farming Tree by HEXAGRO

“Nature is a circular system that can provide abundance for everyone in a sustainable way. Hexagro develops its business and solutions inspired by time-proven nature patterns to develop a resilient and sustainable food system through urban agriculture. CE is a fundamental principle of biomimicry, and it represents a trillion-dollar opportunity. Our team is the first Italian startup to become part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE 100 Emerging Innovators to contribute with our circular approach to society.” Felipe Hernández Villa-Roel, Co-founder at HEXAGRO.

WHAT IS HEXAGRO? Urban farming is not scaling fast enough to impact the current inefficient food system; therefore, HEXAGRO is a platform to accelerate the adaptability of urban farming technologies. HEXAGRO offers a modular and IoT automated solution called the Living Farming Tree that allows anyone to grow fresh fruits and vegetables at home or in the office spaces. Moreover, due to the complicated and centralized supply chain, the food we buy contains a lower nutritional value, especially for vitamin C, which is 60% lower than in fresh vegetables and fruits. Statistics show that today around 50% of the fresh products are wasted at the end of the supply chain. This is another problem that we aim to solve with our solution — to cut the food supply chain for fresher and healthier food. The technology we use in Living Farming Tree is called Aeroponics, which was developed by NASA in the ’80s and aimed to grow food on other planets three times faster than soil-based methods and with minimal water consumption. This approach is known as the most efficient soilless agriculture cultivation method today and allows us to cut water and fertilizer consumption by up to 40% if compared to conventional hydroponic methods like the NFT Technique. Furthermore, roots of the plants are entirely exposed and are sprayed with a fine mist of water and nutrients, the solution is then looped back to the source container. Furthermore, instead of watering plants every three days, with our aeroponic system, one should only refill the container once in three weeks. Another significance of the Aeroponics — allows roots to be free from soil and, thus, to absorb 20,000 times more air than soil-based, decreasing the possibility of infections and improving the plant’s growth.

Additionally, thanks to our design modular approach every component can be updated and repaired as needed, saving resources and reducing waste. Natural systems are inherently regenerative, every component is reused and repurposed, leaving no waste. In the same way, we want to be a positive force that shapes the future, not a system that exploits and degrades the environment. We design our products and activities to be part of a larger cycle, shifting the perspective from linear to circular: we want to give back as much as we take.

HOW DID YOU START OUT? In 2013, I (Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel, Co-founder at HEXAGRO) was finishing my bachelor studies in Product Design in Costa Rica, where pesticide usage in agriculture is a big problem. Interestingly, this is not well-known as Costa Rica is considered to be a highly sustainability-oriented country. For my final project work, I talked to several organic farm holders and found out a series of problems they are facing, such as climate change, soil degradation, urbanization and lack of young people willing to become farmers. Furthermore, I started to dig deeper and found that the massive urbanization was already taking place back then, and by 2050, 80% of the population is predicted to be living in the cities. This tendency naturally raised a question inside of me “Who and how will produce so demanded fresh and organic food in the future?”. That was the beginning of HEXAGRO.

Biomimicry, a design method that focuses on nature as an inspiration for product development and applies many of Circular Economy principles, was the main framework for me. As a result, I came up with a new product concept to fill indoor environments in cities (with a modular approach) to make spaces green and productive, that later became the Living Farming Tree system. I presented this new product concept at my university in Costa Rica and, along with highly positive feedback, I received a scholarship for studying in Italy, where later on, I had a chance to work on my idea.

In 2016, HEXAGRO was chosen for the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge acceleration program, where I met my first co-founder Arturo Montufar. Later on, by joining in Thought For Food, I found my second co-founder Alessandro Grampa.

HOW IS HEXAGRO DOING NOW? Since 2017, we have worked full time for HEXAGRO, and now we are six people on the team.

COVID-19 caused us certain difficulties. However, it also inspired us to design a new product for consumers facing lockdowns and, thereby, to make urban farming even more accessible. We are launching a new ecologically-friendly product — Poty mainly for private users to grow food at home. Poty is a simplified and more affordable version of the Living Farming Tree.

Additionally, we are working on the social project Siembra Vertical, which aims to foster the usage of Vertical Farming technology in Colombia, my home country, and empower local farmers to adopt more productive and sustainable practices. For each Poty unit sold, we will install one more vertical pot tower in social projects together with foundations granting one farmer access to this fantastic technology.

WHAT DID YOU TAKE FROM PARTICIPATION IN KICKSTART? KICKSTART taught us how to become better entrepreneurs and improve our business model and value proposition. We were able to develop meaningful relationships with corporates and investors participating in the program and learn about how they think. Thanks to this experience HEXAGRO ran a small crowdfunding campaign closing the sales of 5 indoor farming systems for corporates like Raiffeisen and tested a demo in which visitors had the chance to taste our plants grown during winter in Kraftwerk. We became a Solar Impulse labeled solution thanks to the Kickstart introduction and met our first angel investors during the program, an amazing personal and professional experience.

Interviewee Felipe Hernández Villa-Roel, Co-founder at HEXAGRO. By Alexandra Steinmann, Communication and Program Manager at KICKSTART.


13 Feb 2024


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