The elegance of simple innovations - What if tall plants could grow sideways instead of upwards?

Great innovations are about finding a pressing problem that millions have and creating a unique solution for it. In fact, big ideas are often simple. The trick is just to understand the problem thoroughly.

Such is the case of team 'CompactGrowth' (previously called High-Wire Horizontal Crop), one of the four teams with a food system transforming solution in the Viikki Food Design Factory’s Germinator pre-incubator programme. This team of scientists in plant production research from Natural Research Institute Finland and commercialization expertise in indoor farming business from Aalto University have taken a very simple, but massive problem to solve: tall plants, such as cucumbers and beans, cannot be farmed in urban farms currently, because they are just too tall to fit in an urban setting.

Thus, CompactGrowth has designed an automated growing device that makes the plant grow in a horizontal direction. This new way of growing cuts the height of a cultivation layer from six meters to less than one meter. Consequently, the device makes it possible to fit these plants in any building and to produce up to five times more food per square metre with very little manual labor in an urban environment near the customers.

With this elegantly simple solution CompactGrowth takes the current indoor farming concentrated on lettuce and herbs to the next - horizontal level (pun intended). The value to the customers is clear and huge: indoor farming becomes an option to grow a varied and more nutritious array of plants instead of the current “lettuce farms”. With CompactGrowth urban and indoor farming becomes a more interesting and valuable solution to various kinds of new customer groups who are into growing their own mixed salads and plant-based protein sources.

Excellent solutions need excellent business models to grow

CompactGrowth’s brilliant solution is based on thorough understanding of plants and their growth processes. However, for their business to grow, the team is looking for coaching and networks to find the most suitable business model for their case. For this purpose, they applied to the Viikki Food Design Factory’s Germinator programme. 

Indeed, a solution is an innovation first when it is used by satisfied customers who cannot think of going back to their old solutions for the world. Hence, VFDF Germinator’s task is to assist CompactGrowth team in their quest to figure out who could the most interesting customer groups be, what different kinds of requirements and needs they might have, and what kind of a business model and offering design would be optimal for both the customers and the startup-to-be.  

- We have already learned a lot about business model planning from Reetta Kivelä and Laura Forsman, the VFDF coaches in residence, in the workshops and it has been especially interesting to hear real-life experiences from the groundwork of the early start up phase. We have also gotten excellent ideas from the other participants of the program in the group discussions, says Panu Miettinen steering the CompactGrowth team. 

Although the WHAT, meaning the technological solution of CompactGrowth, is elegantly simple, the team still needs to find the best suited HOW for it, meaning the most suitable customers and most functional business model on the urban/indoor farming market. Interesting ideas have already been identified in the Germinator workshops so far. 

Cultivating open minds and innovative thinking

Coming up with truly innovative solutions is hard. One needs to keep eyes wide open for detecting unsolved problems, have deep understanding of the problem and the technologies applied in its solving, and again have an open mind in the design of the final outcome, i.e. product or a service, for a win-win fit for the identified customers and the innovating company. Often startups are better in the first part while established companies excel in the last. Facilitating collaboration between the two helps both in the cultivation of open minds needed in their innovation development processes and tasks.

One of VFDF Germinator’s sponsor-mentors is the food company Raisio. 

- Uncomplicated co-operation with food innovators, successful ways to innovate and an inspiring innovation culture – these are all things Raisio wants to further strengthen in order to continue pioneering in sustainably produced, plant-based food. These are also our expectations for the Germinator program and for the possible new forms of cooperation with Viikki Food Design Factory, says Heli Töykkälä, New business Manager at Raisio.

Viikki Food Design Factory’s Germinator pre-incubator programme is the first of its kind in Finland, where science-based teams, experienced food sector business coaches and established companies collaborate for accelerating innovations for the needed food system transformation. We are at the beginning, albeit with a very inspiring start with four motivated teams and four enthusiastic sponsor-mentor companies all looking to cultivate their innovation thinking further together. Stay tuned for more news on the VFDF Germinator teams and come to see their first pitches at Y Science, an official Slush side event at Messukeskus in Helsinki on the 1st of December.