Start-ups

How a Facebook post drove a banker to launch a multimillion-dollar vertical farming business

Kale growing in Sustenir's Singapore-based vertical farm facility.
Sustenir
Kale growing in Sustenir's Singapore-based vertical farm facility.

Next time you feel guilty about idling away your commute on social media, remember that inspiration can come from all sources.

That was certainly the case for Benjamin Swan, whose subway scrolling sparked an idea that led him to quit his corporate job and embark on a multimillion-dollar business venture.

"It all started with an article on Facebook," Swan told CNBC's Christine Tan in a recent episode of "Managing Asia."

Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir
Sustenir
Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir

"I was on my way home from work and I read an article by (microbiology professor and author) Dickson Despommier on the future of farming and vertical farming very specifically," said Swan, referring to the practice of growing crops in stacked layers, rather than horizontal fields.

"I was looking at a lot of the illustrations and thought to myself ... (this) just wouldn't work for Asia." So, that evening, the ex-engineer, who at the time was working for Citibank in Singapore, consulted "Professor You and Dr. Google" (YouTube and Google), and set about finding a solution.

"I felt that everything I have done in my life kind of boiled down to this point ... I felt that this was my opportunity to do something that would make a difference." -Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir

Six months — and many long nights of experimentation — later, Swan, along with co-founder Martin Lavoo, finalized the first working prototype for an indoor vertical farm that could replicate in Singapore the conditions required to grow non-native crops.

And with that, the first seeds of Sustenir were sown. Within 18 months, Swan and Lavoo had quit their day jobs to pursue the project full-time; and today, five years on, the pair have pumped millions of dollars of their own and investors' money into vertical farms designed to make food production in Asia more sustainable and efficient.

Addressing global food challenges

It may seem like a dramatic move for a banker bored on his commute. Indeed, Swan, Sustenir's CEO, said "never in (his) wildest dreams" did he think he'd go into farming, or even entrepreneurship. But, when he first stumbled across the idea in Despommier's article, he said he saw it as his opportunity to "fight the good fight."

"I felt that everything I have done in my life kind of boiled down to this point," said Swan. "My construction days, working as a banker, all my skills that I had learnt, I felt that this was my opportunity to do something that would make a difference, an opportunity to fight the good fight."

Kale growing in Sustenir's Singapore-based vertical farm facility.
Sustenir
Kale growing in Sustenir's Singapore-based vertical farm facility.

Globally, food production is becoming a hot button issue, with governments and corporations looking for innovative ways to make the process more suitable for today's society and climate concerns. That challenge is especially felt in Asia — and Singapore and Hong Kong in particular — where rising populations and limited land availability put pressure on the agriculture sector.

Vertical farms can provide a solution to that by reducing the space needed for production and manipulating the indoor climate (with LED lights for example) so that exotic crops can be grown away from their natural environment, thereby moving production closer to consumers. In the case of Sustenir's kale, Swan said it can make the process 127 times more efficient than traditional farms per square foot.

"Farming right now we know is a problem," said Swan. "We are reliant on techniques that have been used for centuries and whilst we are trying to bring in automation, and improving the ways we're using machinery and so forth, the thing that we can't improve is land usage. So vertical farming can solve that problem."

Making farming cool

Vertical farming companies, of which Sustenir is one of many across the globe, are not only trying to reinvent tired processes. They're also attempting to reinvigorate a tired industry that has struggled to attract young, millennial workers, typically thought to prefer big cities and co-working spaces to provincial life.

Swan, who is now 38, said he hopes his business can help overhaul that mindset and attract more young people into agricultural careers.

"When people think of farming they think they're going to be out in the soil, in the sun," said Swan, who is now 38. "It's not until we bring them into this environment that they actually go 'wow, this is pretty cool.'"

"We like to think of this as more of a tech company. We're actually using technology to create great products." -Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir

"We like to think of this as more of a tech company. We're actually using technology to create great products," he continued, referring to Sustenir's use of artificial intelligence and its development of a real-time robotic assistant to monitor the farm's environment.

Part of that, said Swan, is incorporating a youthful, forward-thinking mentality into his leadership style. As CEO, he builds a morning gym session into his work day routine, saying that's when his "ideas come best," and he encourages his 30 employees to enjoy similar autonomy.

"I create an environment for all my leaders inside of this company, to craft the way they want to get their job done," said Swan. "I give them that freedom, I set the KPIs as what needs to be achieved but allow them to do it in the way that they want to do it, thereby giving them full ownership."

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