‘Agripreneurs’ tech-savvy green thumbs

Need for safer greens pushes hydroponics into restaurants

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

Umeshu Dining Myojo, a small eatery in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, is growing its own herbs and leafy vegetables, including basil, mint, arugula and romaine lettuce, on site as part of a hydroponic “agripreneurism” effort.

The plants are in a temperature- and water-controlled greenhouse 2½ meters high and 1½ meters wide near the restaurant’s entrance. The case also includes fluorescent lighting to grow the greens, which are used in salads and other dishes.

“We are aiming to create a new trend with agriculture,” said Yukihiro Maru, 35, president and CEO at Leave a Nest Co., a Tokyo-based startup that opened Umeshu Dining Myojo, which is run by a group firm.

Maru calls himself an “agripreneur” — an entrepreneur doing business in agriculture.

“Agripreneurs are those who are trying to start a new movement in society with food,” Maru said.

A small but increasing number of young entrepreneurs are venturing into agriculture and turning to technology to pave their way.

In a country whose farmers have been sheltered from competition and who have seen fewer and fewer successors as rural communities age, this new crop of entrepreneurs aims to add value to their produce via their information tech and bioscience savvy.

Leave a Nest, which taps science to provide various services, became well-known in 2010 when it debuted a vegetable garden inside a Subway submarine sandwich shop in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, creating the world’s first eatery with an inhouse vegetable factory.

Indoor farming via hydroponics can be hygienic and productive. Unlike vegetables grown in fields, leafy greens grow in water on racks without soil. Since harmful insects can’t reach them, pesticides and other chemical are not needed.

The plants grow under artificial light, and nutritional supplements such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are injected when needed.

Leave a Nest has built indoor vegetable factories at eight eateries, a hospital and schools. It provides consultations for the growing system and also trains people how to run them.

“Since the unit price of vegetables is not very high, it is not easy to build a business model only by producing and selling produce,” said Makaru Fujimoto, an agripreneur who represents Innoplex Inc., a specified nonprofit corporation doing consulting and business-matching based on research on farming technologies owned by more than 100 companies worldwide.

Innoplex hopes to eventually set up a joint venture with tech-savvy firms.

Fujimoto, 31, said the technologies are used to grow baby leaf lettuce with different colors, including yellow and red, as well as different shapes, such as serrated edges, depending on what his customers, including chefs at three-star restaurants, desire.

Most of the technologies Innoplex studies pertain to vegetable factories, because there is strong demand from Japanese firms.

Railroads and electric utilities, for example, have idle land for such facilities. Other businesses have idle factories available, after having shifted their industrial production overseas, Fujimoto said.

Vegetable factory systems can be profitable because leafy vegetables grow in a short time. Meanwhile, Japan has the world’s top technologies, and can grow 10,000 heads of leaf lettuce a day in a stable manner with artificial light, he added.

Agricultural entrepreneurs started to grow after the March 2011 calamity hit the Tohoku region. A number of young people quit their jobs to go to the disaster-hit areas to try to help rebuild local marine and farming industries. It was also when people started to feel that food safety was threatened by radioactive fallout.

Other young entrepreneurs quit their jobs at IT startups after suffering mental disorders stemming from excessive overtime, Maru and Fujimoto said.

Vegetable factories may ease worries over the safety of food grown outdoors, Maru said. If soil is harmed by seawater from tsunami, or radioactive contamination, an indoor system can grow safe, leafy vegetables. The Tohoku region in particular has seen an increase in large produce factories over the last couple of years.

The public is still lukewarm about food grown indoors in an artificial environment, which is why Maru started to introduce his system inside an eatery. He believes it will ease customers’ worries by showing them how the greens are grown, the president said.

Maru launched Leave a Nest in 2002 just before earning his doctorate in agriculture at the University of Tokyo. It is partly because there was a lack of academic posts for his profession, but he also wanted to do something about the growing number of children who dislike science. His background coincides with Fujimoto’s, who launched his business while still a graduate student at Kyoto University in 2008.

Unlike conventional farmers, the tech wizards have a positive stance on business expansion overseas.

Last year, Leave a Nest started operating in Singapore. Meanwhile, Innoplex served as a consultant for an Indian firm’s strawberry factory using natural sunlight. It is also helping a Japanese firm in Malaysia to build up a similar plant system.

The agripreneurs also have bigger dreams.

Maru hopes that every household has a vegetable factory in the future. He expects this will be a reality in three decades.

“Similar ‘maker movements,’ or actions to get involved in the process of making something, will happen to food,” he said. “People will feel it is not enough just to only eat food. They will want to grow it.”