The Austrian start-up company Etagrow has invented a highly efficient lighting system for greenhouses and vertical farming. LED-based, it not only emits light, but can also create the right kind of climate.
When co-founders Stefan Huebl and Florian Ablinger first tried to make it through the winter with their own home-grown vegetables, they were using standard sodium vapor lamps. Light is essential for plant growth. It provides the energy for photosynthesis, as well as other things.
What they had not anticipated was the extreme energy consumption of sodium vapor lamps. Both had graduated from the Higher Technical Federal Education and Research Institute (HTL Wiener Neustadt) in Austria and wanted to find out what LED technology could do for greenhouse lighting. They built numerous prototypes before their product was ready for series production. In 2018 – it finally happened: their lighting system for greenhouses was now extremely efficient. They also succeeded in harnessing the heat waste from LED lamps for climate control.
Co-founder Florian Ablinger in an interview with Innovation Origins:
What motivates you?
The optimization of LED technologies for maximum efficiency in the greenhouse sector is a pioneering and exciting field. We are enthusiastic about innovative approaches to economic problems and want to be able to influence the climate in a positive way.
What problem do you address with your greenhouse lighting system and why is that so important?
The area that’s currently available for growing food per person will be cut in half by 2050 because of population growth. That means food production must become much more efficient. Greenhouses use less land, water and fertilizer than agricultural land. Yet they also use up a lot more energy.
Up until now, eighty percent of the sodium vapor lamps used in greenhouse lighting systems have been inexpensive. This is a sixty-year-old technology which is now regarded as extremely energy-inefficient.
We are cutting down on the energy requirements of greenhouses by more than a half by using Etagrow. Just one of our lamps reduces the amount of CO2 by ten tons over its lifetime. The potential savings are therefore enormous.
What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
We see our product as a sustainable response to entrenched, short-term market systems. Our distinctive efficiency concept has so far been of little interest to profit-oriented investors. That’s why we opted to pursue our vision with our own resources.
Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?
With our own funding as mentioned above, we are taking a lot of things into our own hands. We have already made mistakes and have even put our progress at risk. So far, however, we have always been able to learn from these mistakes. So this hardly ever happens anymore.
What have been the most memorable occasions so far? What achievements have made you really proud?
Our products make us proud. Our water-cooled lighting system is the first of its kind in the world and is ideal for unlimited scaling. We have achieved unprecedented efficiency by redistributing the heat output. We have also integrated an online management system that allows you to control light, temperature and humidity anytime, anywhere.
So far, we have managed to cover areas from one to 10,000 square meters. In our first pilot project, we equipped an annex for growing cannabidiol (CBD) with our lighting system. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid from the female hemp plant and is used for cosmetics, smoking, teas and flour. It was a very special occasion when the annex was put into operation.
As a second product line, we developed a small version of the lighting system that operates over an area of one to four square meters. This variant is aimed at florists as well as city dwellers who want to grow plants in their homes all year round.
Where would you like your company to be in five years time – what is your ultimate goal?
Over the next five years, we will be establishing the Etagrow brand and our technology internationally. We are also aiming for an annual turnover of €1.5 million to €2 million and will be setting up a new company location for our production.
Could you imagine a better or more ideal location for your start-up?
So far, our location has worked out very well. But a larger city like Amsterdam would bring clear advantages. The Netherlands has a technology hub in horticulture. Also, Wageningen University is highly regarded in the biology and botany fields. Networks are also better there. We could also do more research on cannabis in the Netherlands.
What makes your innovation better or different from what already exists?
We are expanding on the idea of efficiency and embarking on a new path for the climate system. We have also invested a substantial amount of time and energy in the technical concept. This means that our product is very well thought-out. The design is minimalist – with the exception of the luminescent part. The system is easy to assemble and produces hardly any waste when discarded. Last but not least, investment in the greenhouse lighting system can be recouped.
Thank you for this interview.
Read more on this subject here: Start-up of the day: intelligent lighting for greenhouses
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