Alex Fisher is the founder of Saturn Bioponics – a multi-award winning creator of soilless crop production technology. “It’s about bringing the crop out of the soil in order to increase the density,” he says.
Fisher started Saturn Bioponics back in 2011, candidly describing it as “a long and painful journey.” He had been involved in start-ups since he was 19, with Saturn Bioponics founded many years later following some experiments he undertook in a conservatory with a friend. At the time he had a restaurant business which helped keep him going during the first five years of R&D.
“I had no idea what I was biting off, honestly. It’s been an absolutely tremendous learning curve for me – brutal,” says Fisher. Some people warned him it would be hard, but he has been tenacious. He has had to be; after all, this wasn’t just a novel technology – it has the potential to radically transform a very conservative industry.
The three-dimensional hydroponic system typically allows three to four times the plant density. “We use 95% less water than the global average in lettuce production, for example,” says Fisher. “And obviously, in some parts of the world, that’s really very valuable.”
“I’m a food guy, I’m a nature guy and a sustainability guy” says Fisher. “I’ve always been that way. We’ve got to produce a lot of food. And what we’re doing allows that to be done with much reduced environmental impact: it’s known, it’s controlled, and it’s quantifiable. As opposed to just kind of carrying on down the same old path, just hammering, and hammering, and hammering. That will end badly.”
According to Fisher, this reduces some of the pressures that come onto crops from soil like disease and microbial risks like salmonella and E.coli. “As well as the soil hurting the crop, the crop hurts the soil,” says Fisher. “Intensive farming is not good for soil – it’s really not. But farming has to be intensive because we have a very large population around the world who want to eat fresh food, and are increasingly demanding. People don’t just want to eat rabbit and cabbage all winter long in the UK anymore.”
The potential is exciting. “Hydroponic science can push the crop to kind of an optimal performance. Do we want an intensely sweet strawberry? Do we want a long shelf-life lettuce? These kinds of questions aren’t really mine to answer, they’re actually for the consumer.”
“From a regulation point of view, what we do ticks a lot of boxes. A lot of food-based regulation is around chemical application. We don’t really use anything in the root zone.” Although unlike in the U.S., in the U.K. and Europe you can’t claim it’s organic even if you use organic nutritional inputs.
NIMBYism has become a huge problem though, with issues around planning permission. Fisher has one customer who for the last five years has been in discussions, negotiations, and application after application to put up more greenhouses..
Finance, bureaucracy and mindset are big barriers. “It’s a conservative industry, the farmers have a particular mindset. Farmers are not people with deep pockets of cash and the financial markets are just not geared up for supporting farmers to adopt innovation. Innovate UK, which has been absolutely vital to the development of my company, is a brilliant organization. But there’s a gap – a huge gap.” Retailers are starting to show strong interest in this area. “While the farmer is key to the operation and production of a crop and system, the way the market is structured is that in the end, the retailer decides what they want,” says Fisher. Fisher explains that there are two things that really matter when it comes to hydroponics: the technology needs to be sound and the return on the investment needs to be quick.
“I think in the U.S. we see a real explosive opportunity,” says Fisher. The U.S. doesn’t have anywhere near the percentage of greenhouses as Europe. He also sees opportunities in Asia, particularly China, Japan, and Korea. “They are massive markets with high fruit and vegetable intake diets. The guys we are working with in Japan on a joint venture have spent a long time looking around for technologies.”
Fisher is proud to have built his business without yet taking any equity investment. He has had a lot of conversations with founders who took investment but in hindsight wish they had bootstrapped their business for a bit longer. He doesn’t rule out doing so in the future, but is keen to be held up as an example of why it’s not always essential.
Fisher’s vision is long term, and it really needs to be: “A strawberry trial takes a year. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it, it’s still going to take a year. So, time is a cost in my space, significantly so.”