How is Japan’s Oldest Plant Factory Company Charting a New Course?

At a recent ‘East Meets West’ event co-hosted by our partners at the Japan Plant Factory Association and UrbanAgNews, MIRAI’s incoming President & CEO, Shiina Yoshio, outlined his vision for the Japanese plant factory major.

MIRAI was one of the first of Japan’s 200+ plant factory companies, inaugurated in September 2004 by plant physiologist Shimamura Shigeharu.  Shortly after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the associated Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Shimamura saw an opportunity to help solve the country’s food shortage by founding a large-scale plant factory.  Inspired by a teenage visit to the Expo ’85 World Fair, Shimamura had a longstanding interest in plant factories and identified an abandoned Sony factory in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan for the farm site.  As he described the situation: “I knew how to grow good vegetables biologically and I wanted to integrate that knowledge with hardware to make things happen”[1].

MIRAI Plant FactoryMIRAI was one of the first commercial indoor farming companies to benefit from the “Moore’s Law” effect in LEDs that has driven improved commercial viability for indoor farms globally.  It worked with US multinational GE to incorporate LEDs into its plant factory, so using 40% less power than fluorescent equivalents according to a publication produced by GE.  This initial plant factory had 18 cultivation racks that were 15 stacks high.

Over time, MIRAI has expanded to produce 16,000 heads of lettuce per day across its plant factories, as well as offering research, design and build services for other indoor farmers and acting as an agricultural product wholesaler.  Like most plant factories, it offers a range of leafy greens and herbs, such as romaine lettuce, watercress and coriander.  More than 90% of its produce goes to hamburger chains and sandwich makers, such as, convenience store chains.

Further, the company is one of a handful of Japanese plant factories to embark on international expansion.  It expanded to add plant factories in Mongolia (where fresh vegetables are normally imported during the harsh winter months) in January 2014 and to Russia in March 2016.  There is also a MIRAI-related facility in Hong Kong.

Prof KozaiMIRAI has become known as one of the most forward-thinking companies in the industry.  For instance, it’s first overseas project was to prove the system’s capability in extreme environments in Antarctica in January 2008.  It continues this tradition with its current work with PlantX, a cloud based controls based company that says it has seen significant yield improvements in lettuce by utilizing its “SAIBAIX” product to capture and analyze environmental data at a MIRAI plant factory based at Chiba University.  The project is guided by Chiba University’s Professor Kozai, who discussed it in his book “Plant Factory”.

A NEW BACKER IN 2015

Last year, MIRAI achieved another milestone, when it was acquired by Masaru Industries Ltd, a nearly 60-year old plastics manufacturing firm based in Tokyo.  With the company’s growth, it had begun to need more expansion capital than was available to it, and Masaru had been seeking investment opportunities in the sector.  With the acquisition, Shiina Yoshio – whose family owns Masaru – became President & CEO of MIRAI and turned his focus to improving the company’s competitive advantages.

In his presentation at the ‘East Meets West’ event, Shiina discussed his goal of “optimizing the overall factory operation” by balancing marketing, agricultural and industrial approaches.  He views running the farm as if it’s a manufacturing or industrial process, for example, by creating robust quality control processes, as being the only route to profitability for large scale vertical farms.  He lists several attributes that are needed to run a successful commercial-scale plant factory business, such as, construction knowledge, physiology experience, and marketing know-how.  His aim is to see MIRAI embody these principles as it continues its rapid expansion.

We are looking forward to hearing both Shiina Yoshio and Professor Kozai talk more about their work at Indoor Ag-Con Asia next month.  More information and passes for the event are here.

[1] Quoted in “Lettuce See The Future: LED Lighting Helps Farming Go High-Tech In Japan”, Thomas Kellner, GE Reports, July 10, 2014