Of light and lettuce

He is a man of conviction who fills with enthusiasm whenever he talks about "smart farming" - the cultivation of crops and ornamental plants through intelligently controlled artificial light.

L et’s start at the beginning. Timo Bongartz is an innovation manager at OSRAM in Munich. “The” focus for him is plant growth through intelligently controlled artificial light. For example, different types of lettuce and herbs thrive inside of grow boxes in your own home. They require only a small amount of water and receive a meal of light rather than fertilizers and pesticides. With the appropriate mixture of mostly red and blue light provided at the right time, the plants grow excellently in the endless summer of the grow box.

The mission: sustainably produce healthy vegetables 

What at first glance appears to be unnatural is, in fact, sustainable − the process is efficient, healthy and conserves resources. Behind this project is the goal of being able to put fresh vegetables on the table at all times. “For city dwellers in particular, we are able to meet a basic need with this solution,” Bongartz explains. The number of people in cities continues to increase. By 2030, two-thirds of all people on our planet will be living in urban areas. Even so, they will want to eat healthy foods sourced regionally − that is the trend in industrialized countries at least. Satisfying this demand will only be possible if the plants are grown locally, be it in people’s own grow boxes or, taking this idea further, in cellars and warehouses that could also be turned into spaces for plant cultivation. “There are so many unused spaces in a big city, such as empty subway shafts or rooftops. The immediate outskirts, where industry is also located, are especially interesting,” Bongartz reflects. We could take advantage of these ­spaces to ensure that healthy and fresh greens end up on the tables of city dwellers every day. That is the great vision.

Let’s be honest, most people would not think that healthy nutrition could be a focus for OSRAM. But, surprisingly, it’s a perfect fit: improving people’s lives through light. This idea is also Timo Bongartz’s guiding principle, and he works hard to promote it. “Short transport routes, hardly any refrigeration, little packaging, and hardly any pesticides or fertilizer − that is what we can achieve through smart farming,” he says. Having good ideas is one thing, but actually applying them is another. To take that step, we sometimes have to be ready to rethink things. “We used to adapt plants to their environment, but now we adapt the environment to plants. Take lighting conditions, for example. OSRAM can play to its strengths here and turn light into a tool of added value − that is pioneering.”

“Short transport routes, hardly any refrigeration, little packaging, and hardly any pesticides or ­fertilizer − that is what we can achieve through smart farming.”

“We focus on the opportunities”

Timo Bongartz started at OSRAM just two years ago, and since then, he has pressed ahead with his project with great drive. “I see myself as an intrapreneur − as an entrepreneur inside the company, so to speak,” Bongartz explains. He is extremely grateful that he received backing from management, which his team − collaborating in various fields across the whole globe − also benefits from. From the Innovation department to Opto Semiconductors and Specialty Lighting, the team consists of software developers, biologists, engineers and business ­developers. There is an expert to handle each related aspect. “Hierarchies don’t play a role. Each team member lends their complete commitment and expertise to the project and assumes responsibility. We are a diverse team, but we share common values. Mistakes are also allowed − we just have to be bold and focus on our opportunities.”

The secret to success: light “recipes”

The start-up agrilution, which OSRAM has owned a stake in since May 2017, has developed a prototype for a grow box – a kind of indoor garden for homes. “It is of course a lifestyle product,” Timo Bongartz says, “and we will not reach the really big goal with it yet.” However, the team’s strategy is for OSRAM to use the grow box to make a name for itself in this young market and gain know-how in the process.

“I see myself as an entrepreneur ­inside the company.”

“We are partnering with a variety of start-ups and research institutes in order to build up a broad base of applied knowledge,” Bongartz says. We are ­using research light systems that contain software in order to determine plant-­specific light “recipes” for optimum growth, ­appearance, taste and compounds. “Each plant has its own lighting needs. This insight is also of great interest to the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries,” he notes, drawing even wider connections. “With the right light intensity and color, we can control the development of certain compounds with great subtlety.”


OSRAM wants to be a leading player in smart farming. “We see great potential for our LED components, which is an area where we are already a global market leader. Through partnerships, like the one with agrilution, we are expanding our value creation with complete lighting solutions. In terms of our research light system, we are moving in the direction of connected lighting systems, optical sensors and smart IoT platforms.”

  • Freshly harvested: Maximilian Lössl, founder of the start-up agrilution, and Timo Bongartz enjoy fresh lettuce from their own grow box.

“The potential is huge”

Ideas for the “nutrition of tomorrow” range from fresh cabinets at supermarkets, to supplying retailers with products from vertical farms in large warehouses, to high-tech greenhouses. “The potential is huge,” Bongartz says with certainty. However, nothing happens from one day to the next. “Our job now is to come up with a growth strategy based on this approach,” he says. “We have to sow the seeds today so we can reap the harvest tomorrow.”

“We have to sow the seeds today so we can reap the harvest tomorrow.”

The plans require a new way of thinking that may break away from some traditional ideas. The focus here is not on doing away with the farm garden, but rather on questioning industrial farming practices and on OSRAM’s new role in tackling key issues of the future. Vege­tables from a light factory will not solve all problems, but Timo Bongartz is certain that they will play an important role in the nutritional mix of the future. He then stands up and says goodbye. It is time for lunch in the company restaurant − ideally a fresh salad.

A video about a research partnership with Michigan State University on plant-specific light “recipes”. You can also read an interview here with David Hamby, the project manager at OSRAM responsible for cooperation with Michigan State University (MSU). Together with MSU, he is conducting research into new ways of cultivating plants in buildings more efficiently and more economically.


What role does the OSRAM light play?

The artificial LED light plays a very special role, because targeted lighting control makes it possible to increase harvest yields, shorten growth periods, and develop the taste and compounds in plants. Corresponding OSRAM sensors and software are of course also used in this process. In addition, year-round production is possible with artificial light. 


Why do we sometimes say ­“vertical farming”?

It simply means that the plants grow above and below each other on multiple levels, which is to say, vertically. This setup ensures that more plants can grow in small spaces. 


Why is so little water used? 

The majority of water in conventional farming practices either evaporates or seeps away. A vertical setup makes it possible to create a closed loop in which the water is recycled.


Does it taste good?

The vegetables and lettuce taste just as good as − if not better than − those you get from the supermarket. The plants are harvested when they are ripe and make their way fresh to your table without long transport routes − from farm to fork, so to speak.

More about the start-up agrilution and smart farming is available in the new ON magazine at www.osram-group.de/innovation