Young Ambition is a feature series in which wildchild invites inspiring individuals to share their passions, grand plans, and pipe dreams with us.
Following the recent disruption of supply chains due to the Russia-Ukraine war, food security has become even more of a hot-button topic. As such, we speak to Sven Yeo, the co-founder of Archisen, a Singapore-based agritech firm that designs, builds, and operates systems to grow ultra fresh produce. Sven explains the workings of urban farming and elaborates on how Archisen uses technology to ensure that the quality of their produce is consistent amidst the unpredictability of climate conditions.
On his education and whether his degree came in handy
I majored in Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. There is actually no degree related to crop science or agri-tech in Singapore and my school only offered one module on plant biology — so plants were definitely not my area of focus. My degree equipped me with the ability to learn, rather than with the specific knowledge that I need for my work at Archisen. For example, a systems biology module reframed the way I look at systems; I now abstract and modulate information instead of being overly fixated on highly specific details. Another synthetic biology module taught me the importance of understanding the characteristics of biological modules (such as the respiratory system, digestive system, and olfactory system), which opened up the possibility of piecing them together to build new systems for novel applications.
On his path to entrepreneurship
While I really liked science, I spoke to my university professors and realized that a career in academia was not what I was looking for. I dabbled in finance but did not secure any internships in investment banks, so I decided to give entrepreneurship a shot. I took a module on bioentrepreneurship, which led me to participate in the inaugural ideas.inc competition. It is a 9-month-long business competition, during which the teams have to register a company, build a prototype with a small amount of funding, and move from a proof-of-concept (POC) to a proof-of-value (POV) business model in the finals.
That gave me my first taste of entrepreneurship and made me realize that my value and potential as an individual lie beyond my academic qualifications. Instead, they are more of an amalgamation of knowledge, skill sets, and experiences that are unique to me.
After my first startup, I joined a multinational corporation for a brief period and realized that while the money was good, I pretty much learned everything I could in the short time that I was there. My satisfaction was limited as I felt that I could be replaced in the blink of an eye. I wanted to do something that only I — or very few others, at least — am able to do, which justifies my place in the organization.
It brings me great satisfaction to see that my contributions have significant impact and to know that I am not an inconsequential cog in the wheel. So I co-founded BioMachines, an Internet-of-Things startup specializing in agriculture and smart cities, together with three other people under the Small World Group incubator. We received a good amount of seed funding and made it profitable within the second year. I served five years as the chief executive officer (CEO) before moving on to co-founding Archisen with my partner Vincent — one of the co-founders of BioMachines — and I am currently serving as the chief technology officer (CTO).
On how Archisen’s technology overcomes operational inefficiencies
Large-scale traditional farmers manage large estates that can span up to thousands of hectares and it is simply impossible to know what is going on at various zones at all times. With no ability to control the climate, they have to rely on weather forecasts and respond to adverse conditions like floods and droughts, which are increasingly common due to climate change.
As such, it is imperative that our technology is climate resilient. Our crops are also not spread out across large estates and can easily be more than 20 times as dense (per unit area) as traditional production sites. There is also greater labor efficiency since our workers do not have to physically travel long distances to perform routine activities like seeding, transplanting, and harvesting.
On Cropdom and Internet-of-Things (IoT)
Cropdom is the name we give to our turn-key urban farming solution — we provide services such as farm design, market analysis, crop selection, sales of produce, regulatory approvals, and financial modeling. IoT refers to a network of “smart” devices that have the ability to collect data and send it to the internet where a user can access the information over a web browser and take action. It is similar to a smart home setup, which allows you to dim lights, draw curtains, turn on the air conditioning, and configure entertainment systems based on user preferences.
IoT and data analytics help to provide operational visibility in the farm as the farm never sleeps. Pumps are always working to supply the plants with water and nutrients; the temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels are always regulated to optimize their growing environment. Even when no one is physically there, we can always log in to the system to see what the conditions are like at the various grow rooms on the farm. We often analyze the data to see how we can improve the yield and quality of the crops. These data can then be used to construct the business model of farms.
On his typical work schedule and favorite parts of the job
I typically only manage to clear my emails for the day in the evenings as I am constantly in meetings with clients, investors, customers, contractors, collaborators, or internal team members (from science, engineering, software, and business development teams). I currently handle both the technological and commercial aspects of the business.
For tech, I enjoy learning new concepts and applying them to achieve what was previously impossible (such as growing grapes indoors!). For the commercial side of things, I enjoy coming up with new and unique offerings that create value for our customers. It delights me when customers are surprised that our salads and vegetable-based products have such interesting flavor profiles.
On what drives his conviction for producing quality local produce
Our mission is to provide high-quality, nutritious, and flavorful produce to everyone, regardless of age, gender, and income. This is why we started the Justice Project in collaboration with Food Bank, which donates a portion of our fresh produce to financially underprivileged families and beneficiaries. They often receive canned food and highly processed food, which are convenient to prepare but not the most nutritious. As such, we hope to supplement their diet with our produce as we believe that access to proper nutrition is a fundamental right, not a privilege.
On the challenges of running Archisen
Fundraising is always difficult but it’s even more so in Singapore because unlike finance and fintech many investors are not familiar with agri-tech. So it is very difficult for them to do their due diligence and believe in our vision. To date, we have pitched to more than a hundred different investors, from angels and family offices to venture capitalists and private equity firms. Fortunately, we are gaining traction with our progress and track record, so it is much less difficult compared to what we experienced at the start.
“I would tell myself to start this journey of failing and learning even earlier. Despite the uncertainty of achieving success, it is better to take risks than a safer approach that would certainly lead to mediocrity.”
— advice for his younger self
On Archisen’s current projects and priorities
Commonwealth Greens is our first farm and we are expanding its capacity with new automation and robotics technology; we are also in the midst of building our second farm, which focuses on producing a tonne of Asian greens each day. Just Produce is also expanding our offerings from salad greens to Asian greens, and we are also about to announce other new products such as ready-to-eat salads.
Aside from increasing our capacity and offerings, Archisen is also forming partnerships to offer technological solutions to other farms as well as to bring home-growing appliances to the market. This helps the industry to build capacity and provide more supply to the local market, as well as make it easier for customers to grow their own produce.