[Korea Times]Revealed: n.thing gives visitors a taste of high-tech smart farm

Romaine lettuces grow inside one of n.thing’s three ‘Planty Cubes.’ The smart farm developer unveiled two of the three cubes to selected guests Thursday. / Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

Korea Times, 2018. 04. 05 | [기사원문링크: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2018/11/133_246798.html]

By Ko Dong-hwan

Agritech company n.thing revealed its groundbreaking automated smart farm methods for growing plants to a select few invited guests Thursday.

The startup company, established in 2014, is growing romaine lettuce in one of three refurbished shipping containers that it calls “Planty Cubes” in Mia-dong, Gangbuk-gu, in northern Seoul.

The lettuces are grown in “pickcells,” 125-cubic-centimeter plastic pots filled with water-soaked decomposable sponge. The plants were at various stages of development ― from one week to maturity. 

Hundreds of pickcells in three rows on five tiers filled each cube, spanning 27.6 square meters. Each row was under an LED tube that produces different colored light. The tubes are turned on and off and the color changes using the company’s smartphone app. 

“The cube is completely isolated from outside, with its ventilation system bringing air from outside and circulating it inside,” Tony Baik, the company’s CTO, told a group of guests inside a cube. 

“Mid-air moisture vaporizing from the plants gets sucked up by dehumidifiers and is reused to replenish water troughs running below pickcells. This water amounts to as much as 100 liters.”

Next to the lower cube is another that the company kept closed to visitors. CEO Leo Kim said an experiment in growing strawberries was going on there. 

“People in this neighborhood love our cubes,” said Kim, who refurbished the white-painted cubes in a dense low-rise commercial district in Mia-dong in January. “Once they found the structures were growing plants inside, they embraced the venues.”

Thursday’s invited guests included n.thing investors, the company’s partners who provided seeds for the cubes, and people interested in investing. Previously, no one but company researchers had been allowed inside the cubes.

The cube, a vertical farm, is the company’s main product. It has state-of-the-art technologies for growing leafy and herb plants in an automated indoor space away from outside influences. 

Because of the controlled environment, a cube can provide ripe plants 14 times a year. For some crops, the yield can be 400 times that of traditional farm fields, according to Kim.

When a guest asked about the plants’ taste, Kim said a test proved that they tasted better than traditionally grown ones.

“Some believe that plants that grow outside weathering different climate seasons taste better,” said Kim in an orientation session in Y Square, a shopping mall near the cubes. 

“It is the taste of ‘stress’ the plants go through to defend themselves from the environmental influences. The stress is reflected by not just the taste but their color and texture. The cubes can re-create those environments, or even enhance them to more ideal conditions. The question of whether they taste good is already past our consideration.”

The company exported two cubes to Poshtel, a hostel in Copenhagen, Denmark, in January. It has also sold “Planty Squares,” modular pots with multiple pickcells, to about 30 countries through crowd-funding site Kickstarter.