From Hydroponics To Gelponics

Our founder and CEO, Winston Tsai began his research in vertical farming in 2010, leading the first 10 members of his R&D team to study plant physiology, pathology and nutrition. Their journey over the last decade has led to his team pioneering the decarbonization of vertical farming, transitioning from hydroponics to Gelponics. In this short Q&A, Winston tells us the story of how YesBase and Gelponics came about and how it's decarbonizing the vertical farm.

1. What's the story behind YesBase and Gelponics?

We got the idea for YesBase and Gelponics back in 2018. At that time, we were using sponge as a substrate material in our hydroponics system. Originally, I thought sponge was better than soil, but as our yields increased, so did the amount of waste, and I began to worry about the environmental impact.

First, we formed an in-house R&D team to research alternative substrate materials, which led to the development of YesBase, a unique, plant-based hydrogel. We added microbial bacteria to help with germination and healthy seedling growth. Finally, last year (in 2020) we figured out how to produce it on a commercial scale.

The commercialization part was challenging. After we perfected the YesBase formula, it took us another year to perfect the automation. Temperature and humidity have to be controlled because it affects the state of the hydrogel, and you also have to think about costing.

If you compare the material cost, YesBase is less than one-fifth the price of sponge. However, it requires automation, so you have to consider the initial investment. In the long term, using YesBase and Gelponics is more cost effective and more sustainable than using sponge and hydroponics.

YesBase edible, plant-based hydrogel used in Gelponics. Photo by Alastair Philip Wiper.
YesBase edible, plant-based hydrogel used in Gelponics. Photo by Alastair Philip Wiper.

2. How are YesBase and Gelponics changing YesHealth Group's approach to vertical farming?

Today, we're mostly growing leafy vegetables in 8x10mm units of YesBase hydrogel, but we take a different approach depending on the crop. In the future, we're planning to use sheets of YesBase for growing larger crops. We could plant hundreds of seeds in each sheet.

We will have to adapt our hydrogel formula to suit these larger crops. Once we've perfected the slow release of water from the hydrogel, and our bio-fertilizers are fully integrated within the formula, it's possible that hydrogel might completely replace the hydroponic water solution in our Gelponic system. In theory, one day we might be able to grow trees in YesBase hydrogel.

3. What are the benefits of using YesBase in Gelponics, compared to other substrate materials used in hydroponics?

To put it in perspective, our commercial vertical farm in Taiwan contains 45,000 plants growing at one time. And before we developed the YesBase hydrogel, each plant would be suspended in a 2.5cm³ substrate made from sponge. That amount of waste sponge is unsustainable.

As our in-house R&D team was researching alternative materials, we visited a world leading agtech company in the Netherlands. They were using 5cm³ units of soil and that's not the best substrate for hydroponics due to its crumbly consistency, which can contaminate the hydroponic solution. I knew we needed to do something completely different.

That's why we developed the YesBase hydrogel and Gelponics. It's beneficial to the planet because it's zero waste, effectively decarbonizing vertical farming. It's also beneficial for the plant as it is absorbed during growth, enabling us to deliver microbial bacteria directly to the seed during the germination phase, promoting healthy seedling growth. Finally, Gelponic produce is beneficial for consumers because it's conveniently delivered to them whole with the roots on, looking and tasting great. It does not require washing and they can be confident in its sustainability.

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