From Dropout To CEO To Farmer?
The status of the agricultural industry will not be decreased just because we are in the era of high-tech. Rather, it is the opposite. This is because the supply and demand of food is expected to be disrupted over time due to climate change, water scarcity, decrease in arable land due to rapid urbanization, and aging of the population.
The world population is also expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, but arable land that can produce grain continues to decrease due to climate change and industrialization. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a 70% increase in food production will be required by 2050.
In this situation, the most promising solution is to improve productivity per unit area by combining advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), drones and the Internet of Things (IoT). It is for this reason that cutting-edge agricultural technology called ‘AgTech (Agricultural Technology)’ is drawing attention around the world.
Agtech, a compound word combining agriculture and technology, is an industry that applies cutting-edge technology to agriculture to increase productivity and raise product quality. The entire process of agro-food production, from cultivation to harvesting, processing and distribution, is the domain of AgTech.
According to Agfunder, an agri-food investment platform, as of 2020 the amount of global investment in agri-food-related startups such as Agtech amounted to $31 billion (about 37.56 trillion Korean won). This is a 34.8% increase from the previous year ($23 billion).
Vertical farms are considered one of the sectors with the highest potential in the agtech industry. Instead of creating a vertical indoor farm instead of a large land, crops are grown by artificially controlling light, temperature, and humidity. It is not affected by climate and season, has high productivity per unit area, and is resistant to pests and diseases.
Agtech startup N.THING is one of the leading domestic companies in vertical farming technology. Nsing's technological prowess has already been recognized abroad. At the 2020 event of the International Electronics Show (CES), the world's largest consumer electronics show, Nsing won the 'Best Innovation Awards' in the smart city category in 2020, and last year it won the 'CES' in the sustainability, eco-design and smart energy categories. It received the honor of receiving the ‘CES Innovation Awards’.
CEO Kim founded N.THING in 2014 while attending the Department of Electronic and Communication Engineering at Hanyang University.
Developed by N.THING, the Vertical Farm Cube (CUBE) can harvest lettuce and lettuce up to 13 times a year in a 40-foot container. It performs photosynthesis with LED (organic light emitting diode) and controls temperature, humidity, etc. through IoT (Internet of Things) integrated automation technology. It does not require soil or sunlight, and it can maintain an environment suitable for crops regardless of the weather, making it possible to operate large-scale farms in the middle of the desert or in the polar regions.
In fact, N.THING signed a contract to build a vertical farm worth 3 million dollars (about 3.5 billion won) with Sarya Group of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in May of last year. It was able to win the competition with Western leading companies by setting up a 12m long modular farm that could be connected and stacked in a short time. Since production is still low, it is busy being consumed by royal families and high-end restaurants. A large-scale farm export contract is currently being pursued. In the UAE, where imported lettuce is sold at a price several times higher than in Korea at marts selling high-quality ingredients, “homegrown fresh vegetables” are inevitably a groundbreaking product.
As Elon Musk envisioned, I interviewed Kim Hye-yeon (38), the founder and CEO of Nsing, who dreams of running a vertical farm there when humankind one day settles on Mars.
Q - I'm curious about the meaning of the company name 'N.THING'.
“The name implies ‘from nothing to the number of things’. By combining information and communication technology with agriculture, we wanted to establish ourselves as a company that creates an innovative global food value chain where you can experience clean and safe food anytime, anywhere, and we thought about a name that could bring that meaning to life.”
Q - Was there a reason why you thought of AgTech as a business item?
“I was a student who dreamed of starting a business, and I decided that I would help solve the ‘food shortage’ problem no matter what field I started my business in. Agriculture is an essential industry for mankind, and as it is still highly marketable, it is expected that more people will enjoy the benefits of good food if IoT technology is applied. In 2010, while working at an agricultural material company run by her maternal uncle, she went to Uzbekistan to experience the farm, which opened her eyes to the importance of agriculture.”
Q - Why did you drop out of college?
“To be precise, I was expelled because of the number of days of attendance. I started my own business early when I was in school, so I took frequent leave of absence. She tried her first start-up after being discharged from the military, but she tasted failure, and after returning to school, she founded N.THING. Thanks to the campus start-up support program, I was able to use the office space and got a decent look, but I was more immersed in N.THING management when I was selected for Google’s startup support program, which I participated in at the time.”
Q - Please explain the competitiveness of N.THING vertical farming solutions.
“N.THING's solution, CUBE, is a vertical farm that uses a modular container method and uses a soilless hydroponics method. It is possible to control the internal environment and growth conditions through its own operating system (CUBE OS), so that customers can continuously receive the desired quality of crops at the desired time. This is also the reason why it received the Best Innovation Award at CES 2020. Furthermore, the ability to grow high-quality crops uniformly in the desired area and environment without being affected by climate or location conditions through a decentralized agricultural solution is also in the spotlight.
Since it uses water and electricity, it seems that it is bound to be sensitive to environmental impacts.
Most vertical farms can innovatively save water resources compared to conventional farming methods. In the case of N.THING cubes, water use is reduced by 98% compared to traditional farming methods. It is also significant that all energy sources used in vertical farms have been converted to electric energy. It is a change comparable to the advent of electric vehicles in the automobile industry that used to use fossil fuels. It is important that agriculture, like the automobile industry, does not burden the global environment.”
Q - What was difficult about applying vertical farming solutions in the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi, UAE?
“As it is hydroponics, it was difficult (unlike Korea) to maintain uniform water quality or control the water temperature so that it does not rise quickly because growing crops must receive uniform nutrients. In the case of Abu Dhabi, we were able to receive detailed feedback thanks to mutual trust with our local partner, Smart Acres, and provide real-time technical support in Seoul through Nsing's Korean experts. I was able to find a solution.”
Q - Was there any opportunity for Middle Eastern countries to become interested in domestic crop production?
“One of the changes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is that Middle Eastern countries, which used to be mainly importers of crops, became interested in domestic production. As restrictions on human and material movement increase due to the pandemic, it seems that the importance of establishing a sustainable and stable food supply system has been newly recognized.”
Q - What advice would you give to younger startups dreaming of entering the Middle East?
“Actually, I did not do a thorough market research on the Middle East. The technology and solution we were developing matched exactly what we were looking for in the Middle East. There is definitely something you want in the local area. If the company's products and services fit this, I would like to tell them to enter the market without hesitation. Choosing a good business partner is also important. Due to the nature of startups, it is difficult to do local business alone from one to ten due to the lack of resources. It is good to cooperate with experienced domestic large corporation general trading companies, etc., and it is good to find a local partner who can maintain long-term relationships.”
Q - When negotiations were delayed or did not go as planned, how did you resolve them?
“Rather than holding a working person and continuing to persuade, I showed results directly to the decision maker. The biggest advantage of our solution is that it is easy to do proof of concept (POC). Usually, a smart farm solution costs billions of won in initial cost, but we can test it by installing only one container farm worth 70 million won. 'I'm not saying you have to do 100 dongs from the beginning. Let’s do just one dong for now. Local decision makers were very satisfied to see how fresh and crunchy vegetables could be harvested from the farm. He said, ‘Let’s go to the next step right away,’ and the process went very quickly.”