Entrepreneur

This S'pore Startup Turned A Sports Hall Into Strawberry Farm - Harvests Up To 1,600Kg A Year

[Editors’s Note: A previous version of the article said that Singrow’s first harvest would be in September 2020. An update from a Singrow spokesperson said that the first harvest would arrive in April 2021. Article has been amended to reflect this.]

Many have qualms about the strawberries we can find in Singapore’s supermarkets.

Common grievances include strawberries being too sour, or delicious but coming at a hefty price tag.

Since it is difficult to grow strawberries at scale in the lowland tropical climate of Southeast Asia, the ones in Singapore’s supermarkets are usually flown in from countries around the world.

Thus, they are either harvested prematurely — resulting in a mediocre taste, or expensive as they are air-flown from countries like Japan or South Korea.

Agritech company Singrow has developed a solution to yield high-value crops in Singapore, and it is starting with strawberries.

The strawberries market is worth several hundred million dollars in Southeast Asia, and goes up to more than US$7 billion, if countries like China are taken into account.

Premium Strawberries Grown In Sunny Singapore

singrow strawberries
Image Credit: Singrow

Singrow has developed a vertical farming solution that addresses every stage of a plant’s agricultural journey, from breeding to harvesting.

This differs from other vertical farming solutions which typically do not address plant breeding.

The startup is co-founded by two scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Bao Shengjie and Xu Tao.

Co-founder and CEO of Singrow, Bao Shengjie, shared with Vulcan Post in an interview that he has always had green fingers.

As he grew up in China, he was exposed to agriculture from an early age.

“I remember accompanying my parents on their visits to various farms and was always amazed at it,” said the plant physiology expert.

“When I first arrived in Singapore, I was extremely excited to see shelves stocked with strawberries from all over the world, only to realise that many of these options were either expensive, or sub-optimal.”

Shengjie eventually started growing his own strawberries as a hobby in 2016, and went on to study strawberries as part of his PHD thesis work.

He attained a PhD degree in the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS in 2017, and started Singrow two years later.

Singrow currently has two proprietary strawberry types: White Crystal and Red Ruby.

It took Shengjie three years to complete six generations of cross-breeding and selection to finalise the current Crystal strawberry that the company offers.

singrow strawberries
Singrow’s red and white strawberries / Image credit: Singrow

According to Shengjie, the Red Ruby strawberries offer one of the highest sweetness levels available in Singapore, while the White Crystal strawberries offer a unique taste and aesthetic.

More importantly, we hope our strawberries will show that premium quality options doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg.

Bao Shengjie, Co-founder and CEO of Singrow

Besides being of high quality, the strawberries will also be cheaper for end consumers as they are grown locally.

High Quality, Affordable, And More Sustainable

singrow sprout hub
Singrow’s vertical farm, the Sprout Hub / Image Credit: Singrow

Singrow’s vertical farm is set in the Sprout Hub, a repurposed sports hall in the old Henderson Secondary School.

The indoor farm spans 500 square metres and has a 6.5 metre tall ceiling.

Even though strawberries are typically grown in temperate regions, Singrow is doing so without the use of air-conditioning, which helps to further cut costs.

“Local production, and reduced operating costs, means that we can better control qualities such as freshness, taste, and cost to the consumer,” said Shengjie.

In an interview with the Straits Times, Shengjie also mentioned that the controlled environment of the indoor farm — from the concentration of carbon dioxide to the acidity of the soil — has helped reduce the time needed to cultivate the strawberries by around 30 per cent.

The company will yield its first harvest of around 200kg or 1,200 punnets of strawberries next April.

Singrow has also developed an automated pollination system with tech startup Augmentus.

singrow strawberries and augmentus robotic arm
Augmentus’ robotic arm used to pollinate and harvest Singrow strawberries / Image Credit: Enterprise SG

The system uses a robotic arm to help with the pollination of flowers and harvesting of strawberries.

According to Shengjie, it enables the company to “significantly improve outcomes” as compared to conventional pollinators, the honeybee.

With all these factors combined, Singrow is able to produce approximately 6 to 8 harvests (worth 1,200kg to 1,600 kg of strawberries) per year, doubled that of its closest competitors from Japan.

Thus, this ensures year-round availability of strawberries.

Beyond Strawberries: Grapes, Saffron And More

singrow co founders Bao Shengjie and Xu Tao
Bao Shengjie (left) and Xu Tao (right), co-founders of Singrow / Image Credit: Singrow

Recently, Singrow joined Singapore’s first food and agritech accelerator program called GROW.

It has also received funding from AgFunder, one of the most active VC funds focusing on food and agritech sector. AgFunder was also the lead investor for Singrow’s seed round.

The startup has also caught the eye of two angel investors from Singapore and the UK, and received funding from them.

As for its future plans, Singrow can leverage on its technology to develop cultivars of other crops that can be grown in controlled conditions, such as grapes and saffron.

It also plans to establish a larger facility for commercial crop production, with a view to expanding overseas, in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

We intend to continue developing our research capabilities in order to continue developing new, innovative but pragmatic technologies that the wider industry would hopefully find valuable.

In a decade, we hope to have a portfolio of high value solutions that have been adopted by partners both here in Singapore and overseas.

Bao Shengjie, Co-founder and CEO of Singrow

Singrow is currently in the midst of some confidential discussions with leading distributors.

Currently, the only way to get your hands on their strawberries is to purchase them directly from the Sprout Hub.

Featured Image Credit: Singrow and Healthline

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