How Unfold is changing the vertical farming landscape

Unfold President and CEO John Purcell shares what the company has accomplished in the past year.

John Purcell
Photo courtesy of Unfold

It’s no secret that if you want to plant crops, you need seeds, and those seeds obviously have to come from somewhere. The average seed provider, breeding seeds for the average farmer, needs to design those seeds so that they can withstand the environmental pressures common in outdoor farms. The seed provider has to account for weather, humidity, lighting, changing seasons, natural disasters, diseases and pests. Accounting for all these factors takes a great deal of time and energy when a seed provider creates their seeds, and of course, the farmers have to worry about those factors when they plant and grow their seeds. 

But with indoor farming, farmers have varying degrees of control over the environment where they grow their crops, so they don’t have to worry about threats from the outside world. This phenomenon is especially true for vertical farmers, who have complete control over their environment. However, indoor farmers traditionally still get their seeds from the same providers who are taking all those external threats into consideration. 

But what if there was a seed provider who, like indoor farmers, didn’t have to worry about any of those factors? Enter Unfold, the first ever seed provider that provides seeds exclusively to vertical farms. CEO and President John Purcell explains how the idea for Unfold came about, saying that “when I was heading R&D for Bayer vegetables, we were looking at the vertical farming space and thinking, what can we do to provide some products and solutions for that sector?” That question led to the decision to launch a new startup “100% focused on providing seeds for the vertical agriculture sector.” 

Launched in August 2020 with a $30 million investment from Bayer and Temasek, Unfold sought out to create seeds solely to be used in vertical farms, meaning that they don’t have to worry about the threats and variables that traditional seed providers do. Instead, the company can focus simply on providing the highest quality seeds to their farmers.

In the year since they launched, Unfold has had their work cut out for them. They’ve spent the past year getting their team up and running, going from one employee to 10, planning the construction of their own R&D site, building relationships with customers and running trials for their seeds. Of course, launching a company shortly after the global COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world in its tracks was no easy task. Unfold President and CEO John Purcell notes that the team just had their first-ever in person meeting after a year of doing everything virtually. Purcell says it felt good to finally get everyone in the same room to work together. 

Going forward, Purcell plans to keep working on Unfold’s seed production. Purcell says that a great deal of the research and developments around vertical farms is focused on the control aspects of farming – how best to manage the lighting and temperature of their indoor environments, for example. Unfold is unique in that they are putting their energy into “trying to provide the raw materials and seeds that make vertical farms successful.”

Purcell’s team is also working on providing what he calls a “digital package” to farmers. Not only does he want Unfold to give vertical farmers the seeds they need to grow their crops, but also the information they need to grow their crops in the best way possible. 

Purcell also hopes to expand their crop portfolio. Like most vertical farms today, Unfold started out growing leafy greens like lettuce and spinach. Most vertical farms grow these leafy greens because they can grow in a compact space, they mature quickly and they need less light than other crops like fruits. 

With vertical farming’s ability to grow such a vast number of crops with such a small footprint, it’s important for the sector to try to expand into growing lots of different crops. Currently, Unfold is trying to move into producing tomato, pepper and cucumber seeds. As Purcell says, “You have to grow the whole salad, not just the leafy greens.”  
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