As the coronavirus pandemic has closed restaurants, one Virginia-based startup that offers a technology for growing some foods indoors has pivoted its business model.
Babylon Micro-Farms, a startup that makes remotely controlled, indoor hydroponic systems for raising fresh herbs, vegetables and salad greens, is now focusing on providing its systems to senior living and retirement centers.
The company, co-founded in 2017 by University of Virginia students Alexander Olesen and Graham Smith, had been installing some of its indoor farming units in restaurants, but three of its customers in that segment have temporarily suspended service during the pandemic.
However, “there are many other examples where our farms continue to operate and provide a vital service,” Olesen said.
“We are fortunate to have farms that provide fresh produce to multiple senior living communities, home to the most vulnerable populations affected by the outbreak,” Olesen said.
The startup company’s key innovation was to develop a technology system that enables its own staff to remotely control the light, water and nutrients for its farming systems.
“Because we are able to manage our farms at the communities remotely, it minimizes their risk of exposure,” Olesen said. “There is much to be said for being able to see your garden grow even when you are isolated — it improves your quality of life.”
Commonwealth Senior Living currently has Babylon Micro-Farm units in three of its retirement communities in Charlottesville, Williamsburg and Portsmouth, with plans to add systems at all 34 of its communities including its three in the Richmond area.
“They are extremely important right now, because we are controlling everything from seed to harvest,” which provides for additional food safety and security, said Bob Raymond, vice president of procurement and dining services for Commonwealth Senior Living, which has about 2,500 residents at its communities. “We have eliminated an almost 11-step process by doing this.”
The systems enable the retirement communities to produce about 45 greens and herbs to supplement its dining menus, and residents can select which produce is grown.
“It has been very engaging for the residents,” Raymond said. “Some of them actually help us do the physical harvesting.”
Babylon Micro-Farms is based in Charlottesville but also has staff in Richmond. The company is a graduate of the Richmond-based startup accelerator program Lighthouse Labs.
Late in 2019, Babylon Micro-Farms raised $2.3 million in funding mostly from investors, but the capital raise also included a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on its systems, along with a $50,000 grant from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology.
Olesen said the coronavirus pandemic had shed light on the fragility of the nation’s food-supply system and the need for more options for locally grown, sustainable food sources. Much of the nation’s fresh greens are produced in a few areas such as California, then transported large distances before reaching consumers.
“Reducing transportation miles eliminates a lot of production problems,” Olesen said. “The more areas growing more food closer to the end consumer results in a more resilient system. It also means a wider selection of fragile fresh greens become viable commercial crops because they can be harvested and consumed quickly.”