A rendering of a vertical farm using the Aponix Barrel
Marco Tidona is the inventor behind the Aponix Aeroponic Barrel. He became a vertical farming enthusiast in 2014 after visiting some urban farms in NYC. Even though he has an international business administration degree, he has been working as software developer since 1999, building individual open-source based IT tools for his customers.
Aponix is a proud member of the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) and based in Heidelberg/Germany, where it also runs an Aeroponic Barrel testing facility.
I had the chance to catch up with Marco recently for a Q&A on his work and future plans.
AB: Give our readers some background on the Aponix Aeroponic Barrel. What is it and why did you invent it?
MT: It is a system that can provide many grow spaces in a vertically flexible and very dense way for any existing liquid based circulation system, hydroponics or aquaponics. It uses lego like parts that can be assembled into ring segments which then can be stacked for a variable height. Sealed with a simple lid on top and on the bottom as standing or hanging versions. Attached with a spray nozzle for internal irrigation on the top you have a growing device which provides 168 grow spaces utilizing a height of 2.30m in a flat space of roughly 1sqm. It is up to your facility design, how many barrels you run and how you arrange and connect them. Currently it is suitable to grow salad greens, herbs and strawberries.
AB: How did you get interested in urban agriculture/CEA?
MT: I started to play with aquaponics in 2014 and ended up in a relatively small room of 24sqm with a 3500 liter system and 100 hungry tilapia. And I needed many more grow spaces apart from the ones that I planned in order to clear nitrates from the system. And I could not find any intelligent system or device on the market that could have done that inside my limited space. So I invented the device I was looking for myself. Coming from outside the food industry and recognizing the existing large-scale food production is anything but sustainable and full of flaws, I was able to ask myself ‘How would you produce food, if you could completely reinvent it’. My answer is the aponix aeroponic barrel.
An Aponix Barrel in action
AB: How have you financed operations so far?
MT: Up to now, the financial resources came from my work as a freelance software developer. With the proof-of-concept running my own testing facility for more than one year now and other research partners testing the device in parallel, I am confident now that the system works and found its niche for small- and medium sized decentralized urban farms like rooftop greenhouses in this very young market of urban farming. I have now reached a point, where external financial support and other external ingredients could catapult this ‘hobby’ into a real attractive global business.
AB: Have you patented your invention?
MT: Yes, that was one of the conditions for the design, that the device is actually patentable. So we have a Germany patent and did a PCT announcement in April 2016, which gives us time now to give licenses to local partners in PCT territories and file local patents and in parallel set up production and sales there. We are currently looking for partners to do this.
AB: Are you planning on starting an urban farm of your own?
MT: Apart from running the testing facility and helping our research partners run their bunch of aponix aeroponic barrels it is actually one of my dreams to set up and run one of the first real productive urban farms here in the region around Heidelberg/Germany and also set up a hyperlocal business strategy. I am convinced this is feasible and would also push urban farming more into the mainstream. I am currently looking for a place and financial support to do this.
AB: What do you see as an immediate priority for you to establish your product in the mainstream?
MT: It is already under way and it is going to be a movement and not only a trend or fashion towards more sustainability in food production and a more educated and conscious consumer. The first small and medium-sized urban farms and gardening projects pop-up around the world and prove it is not just fiction but can also be a solid business. Consumers start to use their wallet to support the system they believe is best for the environment, their health and the economy. I also hope that large-scale operations that currently poison our food and the environment for profit get less support.
AB: Where do you see the Aponix Barrel and your company in the next 5 years?
MT: The aeroponic barrel is supposed to be just a start of a system. There are already many improvements that will be incorporated into the next large-scale production tool, which also will lower manufacturing cost significantly. It will also be usable with simpler drip irrigation instead of the current pressure line powered spray nozzles. I would like to add more ‘adapters’ for larger and also smaller plants. And there should also be a home version with more intelligence. Aponix system parts will be available in many countries and become also common to be supplied by local hardware stores by 2021.
AB: What have been some of the challenges you have faced over the years related to your invention?
MT: There have been many challenges and my frustration tolerance has been tested several times. Since I had no background in any of the disciplines (product design, plastics manufacturing, horticulture) I had to learn most important skills on imminent real problems that pushed me to iterate towards a clever solution. I remember my first pest attack - aphids and white fly. That was when I learned about beneficial insects, sticky traps and pest management. Another challenge was to find the right balance and timing between my parallel day-job as software developer, as financial pillar of my family and the venture at the same time as I did the product development, traveling and testing for aponix.
AB: Anything else you would like to add?
MT: Once the majority of consumers can measure the real contents in their food and start to care more about production methods and resources used to produce them, they will be able to see the real value of their food and make a very conscious decision on the value they get for the price the are paying. Today most consumers think everything is fine as long as the supermarket sells cheap organic food. In short: it is not. There are devices coming to the market, which will enable individuals to detect bad and good elements in their food (see http://tellspec.com or https://www.consumerphysics.com/myscio/) and help them chose the healthiest possible nutrition and avoid the bad and even poisonous stuff.