Electronics engineer Greg Short is on a mission to make food production ultra-local by bringing the benefits of vertical farming to every street corner. 

Greg says he joined Innovate UK’s Young Innovators Programme with a lot of motivation to achieve his goals, but with little business experience, he struggled with imposter syndrome and the confidence to be himself.

Having joined forces with a co-founder who specialised in chemistry, the pair knew they wanted to make a difference and believed they had spotted a gap in the market to decentralise hydroponics – where plants are grown rapidly in a nutrient solution – and bring low-cost vertical farming to the masses.

It was only when he first met the other Young Innovators in his cohort at the first KTN-organised Bootcamp, however, that Greg started to see that he wasn’t alone with the same worries and issues as other young business owners.

“I remember being really nervous before going to the Bootcamp but I soon realised everyone else was in the same boat. We were all of a similar age and hugely enthusiastic about our ideas but so much of the business stuff was new to us. It was reassuring to have the network of other young innovators and my confidence grew from there.”

Cohort collaborations 

Greg participated in the High Potential start-up programme led by the North East LEP and was then selected as a Young Innovator with his business FYTO, which aims at bringing high-quality ultra-local food to potential producers all over the country.

The funding allowed him to rapidly innovate through design iterations until he had a product he was happy to put in front of customers.

But it has been the network of young innovators which has also proved crucial to his rapid success.

It was through Charlotte Hawkins, founder of Earthly Biochar, that Greg was introduced to what would become his first customer, Brighton-based organic restaurant Botanique. The restaurant is dedicated to sourcing local produce and through FYTO has installed its own indoor hydroponic farm to grow herbs, vegetables and aromatics on-site. The pair have also talked extensively about the role of Biochar and developing potential applications in hydroponic growing.

Greg has also built close relations with Marcus Comaschi, another Young Innovator Award Winner 2020/21 and innovation design engineer, to find beneficial synergies as Marcus also focuses on sustainable food production through his innovation, reusable GrowCup™.

Urban farming 

As the UK prepares to host the United Nations COP26 event later this year, consumer awareness of the importance of local food production is on the rise. This, combined with a potential carbon tax being muted as a way to discourage lengthy import journeys of food to the UK, is resulting in vertical farming being in focus like never before.

A key development for FYTO since joining the programme has been establishing a proof-of-concept urban farm in Newcastle to show how hydroponics works in practice to potential customers.

With this now up and running, FYTO is in a position to supply green produce to local restaurants and have a demonstration facility to show chefs and restaurant owners the benefits of installing their own farms on-site.

Greg says the business is increasingly being contacted by people wanting to come and volunteer with them to experience being at the forefront of this innovative approach in the North East.

Schools focus 

The next focus area for FYTO is to develop a schools outreach programme – both as a distribution model for its easy-to-use, plug-and-play hydroponics kits but also as its innovations combine so many critical parts of the STEM curriculum.

Greg says this ambition has been given an extra boost through the experience of his Innovation Champion, who has strong links in education and worked with Greg as part of the Young Innovators programme.

“We have just got to get this into schools in the North East. The value of kids getting hands on learning and connecting us back with food by growing fresh produce I think has huge benefits. This along with hydroponics ability to teach so much of the curriculum and STEM is a great tool to engage kids in learning,” Greg says.

Find out more about FYTO at: https://www.fyto.org

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