Alex Fisher on Soilless Crop Production, Tenacity, and Starting His Business
Alex Fisher is the founder of Saturn Bioponics, a creator of award-winning soilless crop production technology. “It’s about getting the crop out of the ground to increase density, ”he says.
Fisher launched Saturn Bioponics in 2011, frankly describing it as “a long and painful journey”. He had been involved in start-ups since the age of 19, with Saturn Bioponics founded many years later as a result of experiments he conducted at a conservatory with a friend. At the time, he had a catering business that helped him continue for the first five years of R&D.
“I had no idea what I was biting, honestly. It’s been an absolutely formidable learning curve for me – brutal, ”says Fisher. Some people warned him it would be difficult, but he was tenacious. He must have been; after all, it wasn’t just new technology – it has the potential to radically transform a very conservative industry.
The three-dimensional hydroponic system typically allows for three to four times the density of plants. “We use 95% less water than the world average in lettuce production, for example,” says Fisher. “And obviously in some parts of the world it’s really very valuable.”
“I’m a food guy, I’m a nature guy and a sustainability guy,” says Fisher. “I’ve always been like that. We have to produce a lot of food. And what we do makes it possible to do so with a very reduced environmental impact: it is known, it is controlled, it is quantifiable. As opposed to just continuing on the same old path, just hammering, hammering and hammering. It will end badly. “
According to Fisher, this reduces some of the pressures on crops from the soil, such as diseases and microbial risks like salmonella and E. coli. “In addition to the soil that harms the crop, the crop harms the soil,” says Fisher. “Intensive farming is not good for the soil – it really isn’t. But agriculture must be intensive because we have a very large population in the world who want to eat fresh food and who are more and more demanding. People don’t just want to eat rabbit and cabbage all winter in the UK anymore.
The potential is exciting. “Hydroponics science can push the crop to some kind of peak performance. Do we want an intensely sweet strawberry? Do we want long-life lettuce? These kinds of questions are not really for me to answer, they are really aimed at the consumer.
“From a regulatory standpoint, what we’re doing ticks a lot of boxes. Much of the food regulation concerns the application of chemicals. We really don’t use anything in the root zone. Although unlike the US, UK and Europe, you cannot claim that it is organic even if you are using organic nutritional inputs.
However, NIMBYism has become a huge problem, with problems related to building permits. Fisher has a client who for the past five years has been in discussions, negotiations, and demand after demand to install more greenhouses.
Finances, bureaucracy and state of mind are big obstacles. “It’s a conservative industry, farmers have a special mindset. Farmers are not people with big pockets of money, and financial markets are simply not prepared to help farmers embrace innovation. Innovate UK, which has been absolutely vital to the development of my business, is a brilliant organization. But there is a gap – a huge gap. Traders are starting to show a keen interest in this area. “While the farmer is the key to operating and producing a crop and a system, the way the market is structured is that at the end of the day the retailer decides what he wants. Says Fisher. Fisher explains that there are two things that really matter when it comes to hydroponics: the technology has to be solid and the payback has to be quick.
“I think in the United States we see a real explosive opportunity,” says Fisher. The United States has nowhere near the percentage of greenhouses than Europe. He also sees opportunities in Asia, particularly China, Japan and Korea. “These are massive markets with diets rich in fruits and vegetables. The guys we’re working with in Japan on a joint venture have spent a lot of time researching technology. “
Fisher is proud to have built his business without taking a stake yet. He has had many conversations with founders who have invested, but looking back they wish they had started their businesses a little longer. He does not rule out doing it in the future, but wants to be cited as an example to explain why it is not always essential.
Fisher’s vision is long-term, and it really needs to be: “A strawberry trial takes a year. No matter how much money you spend on it, it will take another year. So time is a cost in my space, significantly.