Given Singapore’s high population density and fondness for tall buildings, it’s perhaps not surprising that a local company, Sky Greens, is in the forefront of ‘vertical farming’ – providing solutions that allow crops to be grown upwards, rather than sideways.
Developed by founder and CEO Jack Ng, Sky Greens’ technology provides a highly efficient, low-carbon, hydraulically-powered solution to the problem of space. Special aluminium troughs on large A-frames rotate slowly, to ensure that crop exposure to sunlight, water and nutrients is evenly distributed. The system has already proven successful for growing a wide range of green vegetables, and is equally well suited for wider applications - small fruits, flowers and potentially rice.
All the research and development work has taken place in Singapore, and the export potential of the system has already been confirmed with two deals in China. Interestingly, the customers for the technology are not limited to existing farmers. As business development manager Roshe Wong explains,
“Vertical farming is a pretty new market. Our system has a great deal of potential and many applications; our challenge is to find the right business models that establish a good platform for growth.”
With a system like Sky Greens, form is dictated by function; the way in which the system operates is mostly apparent from seeing it in action. As a result, the company has chosen to use patenting to safeguard its technology, all of which belong to Sky Greens (none are licensed in). Trade marks are also in place to protect its branding. As Roshe puts it,
“as a tech company, IP is a must-have, whether you do it offensively or defensively”.
Rather than simply license these rights at arm’s length, Sky Greens’ preferred market entry strategy is to establish joint venture partnerships to build farms, giving it a share in the outputs as well as the technology.
Here, the IP portfolio provides a kind of investment; licences can be created and agreed for individual distribution deals – as Roshe explains, “we put it in as our capital”. More generally, the company’s patents are seen as offering a pathway to enable the value of the company to be ‘crystallized’ in future.
The patents themselves address two main applications for vertical farming. Their scope is broad, covering the whole system - hydraulics, vertical arrangement, racks and mechanisms. The patent prosecution process also provided a route to satisfy the company, and its shareholders, that the technology does not appear to infringe any existing IP.
Granted rights have now been obtained in a number of key countries, including Singapore, Japan, China and Australia. Sky Greens has applied for broad protection and its patents are pending in a range of other countries; Europe, for example, has entered the regional phase and preliminary examiner objections have been dealt with.
Obtaining trade marks also proved to be a relatively straightforward process, but as Roshe explains, it’s not been entirely plain sailing. Some patenting issues were encountered in the US, where the patent examiner raised obviousness (non-inventiveness) considerations (based on combining two existing patents). The company is now working with a new firm of patent agents, who have formulated different claims, and a further application addressing the points previously raised is expected to grant in due course.
So far, the company has not found evidence of anyone trying to copy its patents. Sky Greens has the benefit that what it does is relatively capital-intensive, making the technology harder to copy. Roshe envisages that at some point reverse engineering will happen, and does not expect the presence of patents to stop this – though it may put off companies that are less determined, as well as putting the business in a better position to take action should such a situation occur. “If someone can copy well, then they could become a supplier!”
In the meantime, the company continues to pursue its policy of continuous innovation, to stay one step ahead of the competition.