A Conversation with...
Phillip Lee is the founder, MD and CEO of Evolve Growing Solutions and RIPE. CHAP finds out what drives him and how he is intending to revolutionise the way the world produces its food.
What three words would you use to describe your role?
Empty the bins. I might be the founder, MD and CEO of the businesses, but I still empty the bins…
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
The day to day work can vary from very detailed design meetings with multidisciplinary specialist teams, through to board level meetings with global blue-chip companies such as SAPA Hydro and 3M.
You are building a new type of greenhouse, the Natural Light Growing Centre at the University of Warwick’s Wellesbourne campus. What is so special about this?
The building is merely the reset button on an entirely new way of growing food sustainably in order to feed nine billion people in the future using the minimum amount of inputs and entirely based on biomimicry. Our points of reference for design are not the last 250 years since the industrial revolution, but millions of years of evolution. The recent growth in the use of biological controls over chemical pesticides is just the very tip of the iceberg of what we should be learning from nature.
We always work under the strict assumption that we don’t really understand how plants grow. We see it as our job to start with the plants’ evolution. Our interventions to then maximise yields, improve qualities, improve nutrition, improve season lengths are tweaks to an already almost perfect system that has been under development for hundreds of million years. This is why the company is called Evolve.
What does Evolve actually do?
Evolve is pretty much the only ‘architectural’ design practice in horticulture in the world. What we mean by that is we don’t have any products to sell. For each project, which is typically at the more challenging end of the spectrum of growing (deserts, low light conditions, remote islands) we bring together all the appropriate technology in order to achieve optimal growth and long-term profitable operations for our clients, always with a first step towards sustainability. Our hook line is: It’s only sustainable if everybody can use it.
We own and have access to critical patents needed in order to unlock it: the catalyst patents and the knowledge. But then we bring in the widest team of expertise, capability and deployability to push it forward.
Where does RIPE come in?
RIPE is a spin-out of Evolve, which is this whole new Natural Light Growing, using ETFE in place of glass. ETFE greenhouses have been around in Japan for many years because you can’t build glasshouses there. In fact, Japan has more ETFE greenhouses there than there are glasshouses in Holland.
ETFE is more durable than glass, lets more light in, it’s self-cleaning. The problem is, if you imagine building a 10-hectare building in wind, using a paper-thin material that’s like a big sail, as opposed to using solid materials – it can be a challenge to work with.
RIPE, the Rapid Installation Process of ETFE, has simply turned this unique material’s properties into a positive by saying OK, it’s a paper-thin material on 200-300 metre rolls, much more condensed than glass, and we have invented cling-film dispensers to get the material straight off the roll directly into the roof. And then some smart ways of heat-shrinking the film onto the building, so you don’t have to have a structure up there to tension the film after you put it in. In doing so you use the film’s natural properties to make it much easier, not more challenging, to work with than glass. And if you ever get substantial loads, such as snow, that deform the film, you can just put the heat back onto it and it will shrink back to how it was originally.
The point of the NLG Centre at Wellesborne is that there has never been any major research into how Natural Light Growing really impacts commercial crops – how it affects everything from plant health through to genetic expression affecting flavour and nutritional content. Or how does it affect the effectiveness of the bees pollinating? There is data out there from other areas of general plant research, but none from the most valuable crops in advanced hydroponic greenhouses where every other aspect of growth is controlled and enhanced. Nobody has looked at these things in a proper, thorough, scientifically studied way. And what can we do to evolve the plants themselves to this new light condition? While we have been developing varieties for glasshouses for 40 years, it doesn’t mean they’re the right varieties for a natural light growing environment. Everything in recent years has been done based on plants’ response to a glasshouse.
Plants are more sensitive and vulnerable under glass. One of the biggest issues facing the wider adoption of glasshouse type production is grower skill. It’s often seen internationally that without engaging a 3rd generation Dutch grower to be in control, your project will not succeed long term. But what if your plants were naturally more robust, and pest- and disease-resistant in the first place? Under ETFE you will do OK – even if you are not great at growing – giving you a lot more resilience to learn to grow your way over the critical first few years. Then we have our focus on the growing itself with new micro-nutrients and bio-stimulants – based on natural plant extracts and biomimicry – that can significantly boost plant health and help mitigate heat-stress and water-stress. For greenhouses it means plants will not only be more resilient with the light but also healthier in other aspects: one of the impacts we have seen is to massively increase how many root hairs a plant has so it can take up more water and nutrition. Another is all 23 genes that have been shown to switch off in peppers under heat stress, remaining on to much higher temperatures – as high as 42 degrees in recent trials. So we see this new way of growing to be literally from the roots to the light above it – that is what RIPE is all about.
How has the partnership with CHAP impacted the work you do?
We met CHAP inadvertently at a meeting with Innovate UK, when I had just spent 20 minutes berating the way innovation is funded in the UK. We were then introduced to CHAP and everything in how they had set themselves up was pretty much a blueprint of what I was trying to communicate needed to happen for innovation to work effectively.
Over the past year CHAP, has shown vision, pragmatism and a make it happen/get it done mentality, with a co-ordinated approach that has been sorely missing in my opinion from the process of innovation funding for many years. I have had significant exposure to the German process of Fraunhofer Institutes in effective R&D development. While CHAP is not of the same scale, it does have the same mentality.
What advice would you give to new business start-ups?
Do not try to own all the pies. Get all the people together who can cook the best, the most economic, the most optimal pie, and ensure everyone has an appropriate share of it, and then go and sell as many pies as possible. That is our method of doing business.
Who has been your biggest professional influence?
Mario Difrancesco, the creator of Stubbins Marketing, at one point one of the biggest growing and marketing companies for salads in the UK, has been my inspiration for many years. His forward-thinking yet practical business understanding and courage to try new things means he went from very little as an Italian immigrant to building up an £80-million+-turnover company with 80 lorries running across Europe. He has been such a pioneer in the sector, respected not only in the UK but across Europe, was one of the first to trial coir instead of rockwool, brought Piccolos to the UK, created what is possibly the world’s first Pesticide Free branded produce ‘Good Natured Salads’, and the first to trial ETFE, which is how I met him when he funded my PhD research and facility. He has taught me more than I can ever put into words and, aside from business and growing, is one of the most decent human beings I have ever met. And the other is Tesla. I try to sit somewhere in the middle. Steve Clarkson and Kevin Wolfe, two fantastic growers and genuine people need a mention too.
If you had to stop working in this field, what would you choose to do instead?
My ultimate fantasy is very easy. I would want to be stood on the Glastonbury pyramid stage with my arm around Bono singing a duet to 100,000 people. I was an indie singer for most of my younger life. I was singing about changing the world but singing about it doesn’t get you anywhere, so I decided to do something about it and that’s that. I now use that same core of energy, that I used to perform, in the boardroom. Without that I would not be doing what I’m doing.