The Biomimicry Institute sat down virtually with Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel, CEO and founder of Hexagro Urban Farming, to ask him about his experience as an entrepreneur and Biomimicry Launchpad participant.
What motivated you to start HEXAGRO?
Hexagro started as a bachelor’s thesis in Product Design when I started to analyze the problems that organic farmers in Costa Rica are facing in terms of productivity, sustainability, and health. These challenges are related to the high amounts of pesticides used by adjacent traditional farms, soil degradation, and climate change, so I began researching methods that didn’t use soil as a growing medium. I analyzed the latest trends on soilless food production, starting from the indoor farming sector and through vertical farming, which proposes a more efficient way to grow food with less effort through new technologies like LED lighting and hydroponics in vertical configurations. I concluded that the main issue with these solutions was their scalability, since they followed a centralized model which is capital-intensive, requires infrastructure and expert personnel, and is difficult to set up and launch. The thesis made an analysis of nature’s strategies to reduce space while maximizing productivity with a modular structure that was then translated into the first version of Hexagro’s Living Farming Tree.
What was your experience in the Biomimicry Launchpad? What did you learn and how did you apply that to your business?
This project became a team and then a finalist in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, thanks to the inspiration taken from nature to develop the first product iteration. After that, we were invited to participate in the Launchpad program. From 2015-2016, we participated in many training sessions and had access to expert mentoring. This gave the team the tools to define a clear business model, which changed the approach of the first design iteration and led to a second design iteration that gave the basis for the current pre-industrial product. Today, the team continues to take inspiration from Nature’s Unifying Patterns to create solutions that follow the principles of biomimicry for every aspect, from product development to marketing and business development. Hexagro Urban Farming was incorporated as a for-benefit company in Milan, Italy, after the participation in the finals of the Launchpad in late 2016.
Tell us about your work to incorporate the Living Farming Tree in hotels and workplaces. What are you hoping to accomplish?
Our vision for Hexagro is a future in which anybody, anywhere, can access healthy food through urban farming. In order to get there, the team has determined a strategy to enter the market and launch its first product, the Living Farming Tree (LFT). Urbanization is booming, and at the same time we are spending around 90% of our time indoors where the conditions are not always meant for people’s well-being. This disconnection from nature within working spaces has direct consequences in employees’ health and psychology and can lead to lack of productivity and engagement, which could have direct consequences for companies. We are reconnecting employees to nature and their work through a “gamified” urban farming experience in which users follow the instructions from a digital interface to perform various maintenance tasks during the cultivation process, aiming to achieve a successful harvest of medicinal herbs for fresh infusions to improve well-being and productivity. Our LFT educates and increases the awareness of indoor farming technologies, while reducing the costs of office greenery maintenance. It engages people with their company and becomes a “gravitational center” for social gathering and relaxation.
What are the benefits to a modular, decentralized system?
Our team took inspiration from nature to create a system that could adapt to any space available and provide the maximum diversity with the lowest inventory. The Living Farming Tree has a standard configuration, but our plug-and-play components, along with our 3D-printed node and IoT automation systems, allow our system to adapt to any space available indoors (horizontally or vertically) to make it productive.
What is your ultimate hope for Hexagro?
We envision a new and regenerative food system based on the circular and sharing economy, helping people to grow plants and make a profit through a Smart Urban Farming Network. This nature-inspired model can increase accessibility to healthy food, decentralize indoor farming production, create new economic opportunities, and reconnect people to people through food.