Meet the high-tech urban farmer who grows vegetables in Hong Kong’s skyscrapers


Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of vertical farming company Farm66, aims to show that farming combined with technology has a bright future in cities, deserts and even space.

IIn early February, residents of Hong Kong — an Asian financial hub of 7.4 million people — faced a shortage of fresh groceries. Shelves of vegetables and the like were empty in the city’s supermarkets as tight Covid-19 controls across the mainland China border severely impacted fresh food supplies.

Hong Kong, a densely populated city with limited agricultural land, is almost entirely dependent on the outside world for its food supply. More than 90% of the skyscraper-studded city’s food, particularly fresh produce such as vegetables, is imported, mostly from mainland China. “During the pandemic, we’ve all realized that the productivity of locally grown vegetables is very low,” says Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based vertical farming company Farm66. “The social impact was enormous.”

Tam estimates that only about 1.5% of the city’s vegetables are locally produced. But he believes that using modern technologies like IoT sensors, LED lights and robots, vertical farms like Farm66 can boost local food production in Hong Kong and export their know-how to other cities. “Vertical farming is a good solution because vegetables can be grown in cities,” Tam says in an interview at the company’s Vertical Farm in an industrial park. “We can grow vegetables ourselves so we don’t have to rely on imports.”

Tam says he founded Farm66 in 2013 with his co-founder Billy Lam, the company’s COO, as a high-tech vertical farming pioneer in Hong Kong. “Our company was the first to use energy-saving LED lighting and wavelength technologies on a farm,” he says. “We found that different colors in the light spectrum help plants grow in different ways. That was our technological breakthrough.” For example, red LED light makes stems grow faster, while blue LED light encourages plants to grow larger leaves.

Farm66 also uses IoT sensors and robots to control quality and manage the 20,000-square-foot indoor farm, helping the company hire and retain employees. “A big problem for traditional farming is the lack of talent,” says Tam. “That’s because the children of many of the remaining farmers don’t want to take over the farms. They think it is a very tedious job.”

“But by using technology, we can improve the working environment so that young people are ready to go into farming,” he says. Farm66 currently employs 15 full-time employees, including data analysts, food scientists and mechanical engineers, who produce up to seven tons of vegetables per month.

It was Farm66’s use of technology, particularly data analysis on light intensity, water flow and climate control, that attracted ParticleX, a tech-focused Hong Kong venture capital firm backed by billionaire Tang Yiu. “I appreciate that Gordon and his team did quite a bit of data analysis on the farming mechanism,” says Mingles Tsoi, ParticleX’s chief exploration officer. “That’s why we chose them as our primary investment target.”

Farm66’s other investors include Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Hong Kong government-backed Cyberport and Singaporean billionaire Robert Ng’s Hong Kong real estate developer Sino Group. To date, it has raised more than $4 million in total funding.

Earlier this year, Farm66 also received funding from the Chinese government’s Hengqin Financial Investment and was included in the HK Tech 300 Angel Fund, a startup support program run by the City University of Hong Kong (where co-founder Lam earned a bachelor’s degree in applied chemistry). Last year, the company created the first Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list, highlighting notable small businesses and startups that are burgeoning in Asia Pacific.

Know of a startup or small business to keep an eye on? Nominate them here.

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“More sustainable consumption behavior is to consume locally.”

Mingles Tsoi, ParticleX’s Chief Exploration Officer.

farm66 grows leafy greens, herbs, and fruits aquaponically—a sustainable farming technique that uses nutrients from fish waste to grow crops instead of commercial fertilizer. The plants, in turn, filter the water in which the fish live, creating a self-regulating indoor ecosystem.

The company packages the products for sale to supermarkets, hotels and upscale retail outlets. Farm66 has also recently received requests from schools and private organizations to help grow their own food in kitchens and small spaces. “We offer farm-to-table systems to organizations so they can grow vegetables for themselves,” says Tam, who has a master’s degree in sustainable urban development from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “We want to promote urban farming and ESG principles to improve the quality of life.”

Farm66 has already worked with top local banks. Tam adds that the company plans to work with real estate developers such as Sino Group, Chinachem Group and Hong Kong billionaire Lee Shau Kee’s Henderson Land Development to bring its urban farming systems to residential and commercial buildings such as B. Soil-free farms powered by solar or wind energy on rooftops.

“People will be aware of the environmental, social and governance issues of importing something far from where you are — it’s going to use more energy and emit more carbon,” says ParticleX’s Tsoi, who is also a director and founding member of the Hong Kong Institute is by Social Impact Analysts. “More sustainable consumption behavior is to consume locally.”

Tam, who completed his undergraduate degree at Washington State University, now plans to expand Farm66 beyond Hong Kong and export his urban farming systems and expertise to other cities. For example, Farm66 created a mobile farm for desert cities in the Middle East from a shipping container.

Tsoi points to the Greater Bay Area, a plan by the Chinese government to integrate Hong Kong and gaming hub Macau into one major economic cluster with nine cities in southern China, and Southeast Asia, home to some of the world’s most densely populated cities, as potential markets for Farm66 .

And like billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Tam looks beyond the possibilities of Earth. “We’re exploring new ideas for farming in space,” he says. “We have taken the lead in exploring the future of agriculture, such as growing crops in a zero-gravity environment.”

“We have many innovative farming ideas,” adds Tam. “We hope to help the public understand that agriculture, combined with technology, has a bright future.”

– Supported by Robert Olsen.


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