This Startup Turns Indoor Spaces Into Urban Wellness Farms

Alison Berman
Dec 19, 2019

Imagine a world where everyday public spaces have become lush urban farms—a world where subway walkways grow nutrient-dense produce for anyone to utilize, and public elementary school gymnasium walls have morphed into a space for growing vegetables with the exact nutrient profile needed to support student health and vitality.With breakthroughs in multiple converging exponential technologies, this type of future is coming faster than you may think. Hexagro Urban Farming, a Singularity University Portfolio Company based in Milan, Italy, is a pioneer in this space. The venture is reconnecting people to nature indoors through its radically designed indoor farming solution offering users unique wellness experiences.Hexagro’s urban farming solution—an indoor, living farming tree—is inspired by principles of biomimicry, in that its design draws upon the already proven successful systems of nature. The design of the company’s Living Farming Tree pulls inspiration from the honeybee hive and also from the design of trees in order to create the modular, lightweight, space-efficient, and adaptable features of its unique indoor farming system.The Living Farming Tree not only grows nutrient-dense produce to increase access to healthy food but at large, Hexagro’s offering is also focused on creating a new generation of indoor spaces that increase human wellness through unique engaging experiences with edible nature. To achieve this, Hexagro’s indoor farming solution also includes an interactive user interface to collect critical health data from users. The data is then used in multiple functions depending on the placement of the product. In an office space, for example, the data collected can provide HR teams with employee health information to understand the wellness of staff and potential environmental stressors in the office building. We recently sat down with Hexagro’s co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Alessandro Grampa, to learn more about the company’s innovative products, the company’s impact today, and the team’s vision for the future. Read on to learn about the true breakthrough possibilities of this next-generation indoor farming solution and the future of urban farming. Hexagro’s living, indoor urban farming tree has such a radical design. How did the idea first come to you?The story of Hexagro started with one of our co-founders while he was living in Costa Rica, which is a country known for sustainability, yet is also one of the biggest users of pesticides in the agriculture industry—so much so that there is a huge mortality rate among farmers because of the country’s widespread use of cancer-causing chemicals.This problem inspired us to take on the challenge of creating and finding technologies to build a solution that could grow food faster, with fewer resources, and without pesticides or chemicals. From this initial idea, we came to our first prototype, and the prototype worked. While creating our first prototype, we learned how big of a challenge that food production is today, and we also recognized the massive problem that people today spend 90% of their lifetime indoors, and in places that are often even more polluted than the outdoors. Still today, most people don’t know this. But today there is a growing movement called biophilic design, which is focused on bringing back nature and natural elements inside of the indoor spaces where we live in order to increase wellness and improve our air quality and overall health. When we looked at these problems and this growing movement of biophilic design, we connected the dots and understood that we could bring greater wellness to people by using nature, and by growing food through technologies that would bring natural elements and processes back into indoor spaces.

What is the mission of Hexagro and the main impact the company is striving for?At Hexagro we're reconnecting people to nature with food. Our vision is to allow anyone, anywhere, access to healthy food, and to achieve this vision we are reimagining the way that people can access, grow, and choose their food.How is biomimicry central to Hexagro’s solution?Biomimicry looks to nature to find natural patterns that can be used in design. For billions of years, nature has tested natural elements to create the most efficient, sustainable, and exponential systems that we know of. For example, nature uses only the energy it needs and also relies on freely available energy. Nature also recycles all materials and is resilient to disturbances—these are some remarkable principles.For the design of our Living Farming Tree, the honeycomb structure has been a source of inspiration with the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb. The joints and nodes of a tree where new branches can grow have also been a design inspiration, helping us to make our product very scalable. In this way, we started by using biomimicry in product design and now we are using it to develop concepts to create the exponential development of a decentralized network of farming that we are currently building. For this effort, we are using the model of a circular economy and a product-service platform to decrease the environmental footprint of our products and of our company at large.Another pattern of nature is that nature is locally attuned and responsive, and our Living Farming Tree is able to adjust to the environmental conditions of each different space. Every platform of the farming modules is completely independent of the others, so that you can change irrigation, nutrients, and lighting factors based on the type of plants, the environment, and how the plant is adjusting to the specific environment.How and where is Hexagro's technology being used today?Hexagro’s systems today are primarily being used in offices, hotels, banks, and service companies that operate in the downtown areas of cities in Northern Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany. In these very dense urban areas, companies are using Hexagro’s urban farming system to improve the overall wellness of the people in their indoor spaces.Part of the appeal of our urban farming product lies in its beautiful design, which impacts anyone who sees it. There is also a software component to the system that provides an interactive user experience guiding people on how to grow and harvest the right plants for themselves. The software also shows people how to grow and harvest the right plants based on how they want to be feeling. Users can approach the urban farming system and scan a QR code to report back how they are feeling in that exact moment. By using locally-placed sensors, we are able to combine this data on how people are feeling with the environmental data of the actual space where the products are situated. From this data, we can create an initial assessment of how people are feeling in that specific environment—which today is a huge topic in the Human Resources field.

What is a specific use case of Hexagro’s living, farming tree?I’ll share the specific example of a hotel here in Milan, where our system is installed in the lobby. The Living Farming Tree is a three-dimensional product that looks like a tree measuring about four feet wide and six feet tall. Because the design is very futuristic with lights and features growing plants, people are very attracted to it and frequently approach the system to explore it.When guests approach the system in the hotel, they can scan a QR code to gain access to the user experience, where they are asked how they are feeling compared to how they want to be feeling and whether they’re having any particular symptoms at the moment. For this latter item, we are trying to gather data on the typical symptoms related to known indoor stressors, such as headaches, eye irritations, and so on.Based on this data, we provide answers about which plants should be harvested in this system. These recommendations are for plants that are far more nutritious and complex than what you might find in a grocery store, and they have much greater beneficial nutrients and aesthetics. Of course, these are plants that taste good, too. Hotel guests can then harvest the plants as a snack or an addition to their lunch, or even bring them home to create fresh pesto, for example.Can you explain more about the significance of biophilic design?Biophilic design is the science that shows how humans and nature are deeply connected, genetically connected, and that deprivation of nature in our lives causes serious health problems and stress-related diseases.There are many studies about this and projects that are proving the benefits to mental, physical, and community health when people spend more time interacting with nature and in a natural element—such as being in natural light, spending more time near plants, and eating healthy food.The trend of biophilic design is also something that has led to the development of the WELL certification for buildings from the Green Building Association. WELL certification is the next evolution of LEED certification, which for many years was what enforced a degree of sustainability in the environmental footprint of buildings. But the problem with only focusing on outdoor emissions is that for many years we have never really understood indoor health pollutants.In contrast, the WELL certification is giving the first set of guidelines for creating indoor spaces that are beneficial to humans—spaces that are restorative, regenerative, and create wellness for ourselves and for our communities. Currently, the certification is mostly used in office buildings, because that's where there is the most money, but it will likely soon move into other types of buildings, such as retail and residential spaces.Can you share some outcomes or results that you’re most proud of?We are constantly impacting people's wellness perception in the spaces where our products live. This is the most immediate outcome that we are creating by bringing the system into offices and hotels. Another huge impact of these systems is the reduction of water required for growing plants. Our systems use 90-95% less water compared to traditional farming. We are also directly increasing the consumption of healthy food for people. Beyond this, Hexagro products are getting hundreds of people involved in growing and becoming educated about their food, which in the long run really shifts the perception of where and how food can be grown.You’ve talked a lot about the future of urban farming. Can you paint a picture of what this future might look like?Imagine any existing interior space that is not being fully used becoming filled with systems that are producing and growing food. In places where we live and spend a lot of time, imagine these spaces becoming places where food is bringing more wellness and nature into everyone’s lives. Imagine if walls, basements, and even the hallways of metro lines and public transportation that are currently just dark and under-utilized spaces could be turned into urban farms where Hexagro systems are growing food.You can also imagine new neighborhoods built with smart buildings that have communal areas that are not just spaces to hang out, but places for growing and exchanging food with your neighbors. Any possible indoor space in this future could become a place specifically designed to be filled with nature, urban farming systems that are producing food, and spaces that are building community in the process.

How has Hexagro leap-frogged or improved upon other approaches in urban farming?There are a few existing technologies—high-pressure aeroponics, LED lighting, automation of indoor farming, 3D printing—that we have been able to blend with more traditional technologies to create our hardware. Hexagro’s design is radically and completely different from other approaches in the market. However, our main objective has always been to become an open-source platform. We are not trying to build a closed product where our way will be the only way. Instead, we are aiming to be the future platform for any type of indoor farming.How has Hexagro been impacted by its relationship with Singularity University?The funny thing about Hexagro’s story is that everything that we were doing before we connected with SU is exactly what SU stands for today. Since the very beginning, we were describing ourselves as applying exponential technology and having a massive transformative purpose. But before working with SU we didn't realize that there was a theory written by someone else about these topics. When we came to SU, we had a lightning moment and said to each other, "Wow, this is a real thing!” and we say that there were already other people doing this, too. So in coming to SU, we had the experience of finally finding a place where people spoke our language. With SU the real impact for us has been getting help with the communications and positioning aspects of the product. We are now finally able to enter a category and create a brand image that corresponds to where SU is going, and where we want to take our startup in the future. Before becoming an SU Portfolio Company, we lacked this type of holistic mindset about our big picture. Now, we have one.SU’s content and programs have also helped us develop a stronger view of the future. We realized that we finally had the tools to share the same picture and the same future with our employees, clients, and stakeholders. SU gives you a different and positive perspective on the future. So many people right now are worried about all of the change that is coming, but SU gives you all of the reasons why you should be excited about rather than afraid of these oncoming changes.You mentioned that Milan, Italy is now the capital of design and green living. Tell us about the ecosystem and how Hexagro interacts with it.Internationally, very few people know that Milan is having one of its best moments in the last fifty to seventy years. There is currently a huge boom of real estate development and economic growth, regardless of what is happening in Europe or in Italy at large.Milan is booming and becoming an international metropolis. This kind of development is mostly fostered by the local political situation that we have, namely one of the most sustainability-focused in our history, which is doing a lot for innovation and for green living.To give you an idea, Milan is one of the very few cities with a Chief Resiliency Officer, and the city is doing immense projects to prepare cities for oncoming years of climate change. For example, Milan is investing in planting three million trees around the city to regulate the temperature, building new lines of public transportation, and even developing entirely new smart city neighborhoods.Also, a huge project in Milan called MIND, Milan Innovation District is taking place right now, which initially was built for the 2015 Global Expo. MIND is building the first smart city from the ground up that is only designed for self-driving cars, wellness, and with a focus on life sciences for the wellness of people. Within MIND, they recently inaugurated one of the biggest genome research centers in Europe, the Human Technopole. The municipality expects up to 75,000 residents to be living and studying there within the next 5-10 years. Our new Hexagro office will also be placed inside this new area. There is also a very famous green skyscraper in Milan called the Bosco Verticale, which is one of the most iconic green skyscrapers in the world. Beyond winning many awards, it is a symbol that Milan as a city is saying that we are moving towards a green future. Milan as a city is changing dramatically.Is there a future project in the works that you want to share with readers?Hexagro is moreover thinking ahead of how we can use our know-how to impact even more people. We recently started a new social impact project in Colombia, which is where our co-founder Felipe Hernandez is from. The project is still at its early developments and little can be said about it, but our technology transfer projects are the proof of our constant dedication to developing farming solutions to empower anyone to produce healthy food and fight climate change. Zooming out, what is the big vision for Hexagro and the impact of the company?We envision our development for the future in three phases, along an exponential curve. The first phase is reconnecting people to nature, which is what we are doing today. Once our product is fully industrialized and able to sustain mass production growth, we are going to start focusing on reconnecting people to food. We are already growing food with our systems, but in the future, we will be able to grow food at a much greater scale and go into consumer markets and many other spaces that can grow food. Eventually, once there is a massive network of interconnected Hexagro systems, our vision is to work towards reconnecting people to people, and connecting this network of living, urban farming tree systems by creating a new decentralized system for urban growing.