How Futura Gaïa designed a sustainable and innovative vertical farming solution to answer major food challenges

French startup Futura Gaïa is combining its knowledge in agronomy and new technologies to offer an indoor vertical farm system that allows the sustainable production of local, pesticide-free plants. A way to tackle several challenges, from water scarcity to food sovereignty, as CEO and founder Pascal Thomas explains.

Futura Gaia growing strawberries

It all started with a strawberry in Montreal.

In 2018, Pascal Thomas was living in Canada, working as a Chief Digital Officer. One day, his daughter gave him a strawberry that came from an indoor growth chamber. She was conducting research on biostimulation using bacteria and fungus to help grow plants. “It was in January, in the middle of winter. I was surprised because the fruit was sweet, juicy and firm — all the qualities you’d expect from such a product. It changed my perception of agriculture, which had always been tied with open-field crops,” Pascal Thomas remembers.

This sparked a long discussion between father and daughter, of particular interest in a family of farmers and agricultural engineers: “We realized that it is actually possible to produce differently, with good quality while bypassing climate risks and seasons. But the main question was: How do we scale up such a solution so that we have a bigger impact and actually answer the growing population’s food needs? And is it possible to do it sustainably, without pesticides, and in a cost-effective way?”

A year later, after a lot of research and a move back to France, Pascal Thomas founded Futura Gaïa in the southern Gard department, with the goal to design an automated vertical farming solution that is complementary to open-field and greenhouse agriculture. Today, the startup, which boasts 25 employees, is selling its ready-to-use systems while looking to build its first industrial-scale farm.

Why the startup’s solution stands out

Vertical farming consists in cultivating plants grown on top of each other instead of horizontally. It’s increasingly seen as a viable and sustainable answer to the challenge of feeding our growing global population. First, it saves space and arable land. But also, its indoor processes mean that produce can be grown locally and in a controlled environment, strengthening food sovereignty.

While most vertical farms rely on hydroponics (i.e. growing plants only with water and nutrients), Futura Gaïa stands out by offering a soil-based solution. “For me, using soil was essential. There’s a lot happening underground, with a relationship of symbiosis between different elements. It’s the equivalent of our stomach’s microbiota. This helps grow healthy and high-quality products,” Thomas says.

The start-up has designed individual systems, each composed of a rotating wheel, with a light apparatus at its center that illuminates the plants all around. “Compared with a plane surface, we have a higher density of plants, and fewer lights are needed — which means that we save energy,” the CEO explains. These systems can be stacked up on top of each other, boosting the numbers of plants that can be grown inside one building. This, added to a controlled climate environment, means that productivity is increased: “For instance, we have made 17 harvests of basil in one year, compared with two to three for an open-field crop.”

To prevent the use of pesticide, Futura Gaïa increases the pressure inside its farm’s rooms so that, when a door is open, air will go out and make it more difficult for insects to enter. It also relies on Integrated Biological Protection, meaning using predators of pests to protect plants, such as ladybirds that will eat aphids on strawberries.

Cost-effective and innovative

The French firm has also built its own automated irrigation and fertilization system, called Nutrimix, which helps reduce the use of water 20-fold compared with outside cultivation, by calculating the exact number of drops needed for each plant. “We had to innovate because we needed a system that works with milliliters, which didn’t exist in the sector.” Futura Gaïa combines the knowledge of its nine agricultural engineers with new technologies which, for some, were borrowed from other industries like the automotive sector. “We are using robots for repetitive tasks, while we keep the delicate jobs for our human collaborators, such as the harvest or quality control.”

For now the startup is mainly growing horticultural plants like leafy vegetables (cabbages, salads, herbs) and some fruits (strawberries), although it aims to expand its catalog with other produce, including plant proteins or plants for cosmetic and pharmacy. This will mean designing other mechanisms, as Pascal Thomas explains: “Each plant has its own characteristics and some might not be compatible with our wheel. So we have to adapt. But our job is to sell this system with the catalog, so expanding it will open new markets for people who buy our solution.”

Customers of Futura Gaïa include actors of the food industry as well as cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies looking to shift from chemical solutions to plant-based products. “Some have difficulties obtaining certain plants, including in France. For instance, the flower of arnica, whose active ingredients are known for their medicinal virtues, is slowly disappearing. We are trying to grow it, to make sure we don’t plunder our natural ecosystems.” Early on, the startup decided to settle on a B2B strategy and to work with farmers and producers to “set the right prices” for its products, while ensuring its solutions are competitive.

€11 million to build its first industrial-scale farm

 Having inaugurated a R&D laboratory in Rodilhan, southern France, in August 2019 and a first pilot farm of 1,800 square meters in Tarascon in March 2021, the French firm is now focusing on scaling up. Earlier this year, it won the “First factory” call for tender, as part of the French government’s “France 2030” plan, thus securing €11 million. The money will be used for research and to enhance the company’s R&D capacities, as well as to build its first vertical industrial-scale farm. For now, Futura Gaïa is looking for a site to establish its 5,000-square-meter factory, potentially in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. “Scaling up is often what kills projects, but we have already tested and validated the performance of our solution — so the hardest part is done,” says the CEO.

While the startup has only operated in France so far, it is thinking about expanding its activities abroad in the coming years. “The issues, from climate change to water scarcity to food resources, are global. Each country needs a more resilient food system that can answer its population’s needs. That is why we need different solutions that can work together with traditional agriculture and complement each other,” concludes the founder of Futura Gaïa.