Advancing sustainable AgTech in the Middle East

Ryan Lefers (left), co-founder and CEO of Red Sea Farms and Mark Tester, co-founder and CSO of Red Sea Farms. Image courtesy Red Sea Farms

​Red Sea Farms, a Saudi Arabian AgTech business whose one-of-a-kind technology enables the commercial farming of produce using primarily saltwater, received a $10 million USD venture capital investment today from a group of leading Saudi and UAE investors.

The investment in Red Sea Farms, which is based at KAUST, is one of the region's largest AgTech investments to date. The consortium reflects growing investor interest in the Gulf in sustainable farming solutions that can combat pandemics and global supply chain disruptions.

Growing sustainable systems of agriculture

The funding is being led by a group of Saudi and UAE investors including KAUST, the Aramco entrepreneurship arm Wa'ed, the non-profit foundation Future Investment Initiative Institute, and UAE venture capital group Global Ventures. The funding is one of the first AgTech investment for many of the participants.

Red Sea Farms was established in 2018 with a vision to reduce food insecurity, carbon and freshwater use in the global and Gulf food sectors. The company's unique, end-to-end growing system primarily uses saltwater, cutting freshwater consumption by 85 to 90 percent. Through a patented system of new, more efficient solar and growth monitoring technologies, saltwater replaces freshwater typically used to cool greenhouses and irrigate crops.

The Red Sea Farms growing system can be quickly and easily scaled in climates such as the Middle East, where conventional farming methods are not possible or cost-effective. The company is initially using its technology to grow and sell tomatoes in Saudi Arabia, but ultimately plans to sell entire turnkey growing systems to buyers around the world.

An investment in the future

Red Sea Farms plans to use the funding to build and retrofit more than six hectares of commercial farming operations in central and western Saudi Arabia. The company currently operates a saltwater pilot greenhouse at the KAUST Research & Technology Park.

"We are proud to have designed, developed and delivered one of the world's most sustainable agricultural systems from our base in Saudi Arabia," said Ryan Lefers, Red Sea Farms chief executive, who along with professor Mark Tester, chief scientist and professor Derya Baran, chief engineer, co-founded Red Sea Farms. "The investment from our new partners will help us improve global food security while reducing the carbon and freshwater footprint."

Red Sea Farms leadership (left to right) Mahmoud Abduljawad general manager; Mark Tester CSO; Ryan Lefers CEO; and Derya Baran, chief engineer. Image courtesy Red Sea Farms

"The Red Sea Farms investment reflects our decade-long commitment to the Saudi start-up sector, where Wa'ed has deployed more than $100 million in venture capital investments and loans to more than 100 entrepreneurs. Red Sea Farms is a good example of a game-changing start-up whose innovations not only can transform markets but improve life for everyone in the Kingdom," said Wassim Basrawi, the managing director of Aramco venture Wa'ed.

"Our investment in Red Sea Farms is an expression of FII-Institute's mission to support initiatives and projects which will have a positive impact on humanity. Our trilogy strategy 'Think-Xchange-Act' empowers us to play a transformative role in the new impact economy. We are pleased to partner with the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology and leading investors to bring this revolutionary technology to market," said Richard Attias, the FII Institute Chief Executive Officer. The investment is the FII Institute's first in the AgTech sector.

The story of a successful spinout

"KAUST is powering an emerging deep-tech, startup ecosystem in Saudi Arabia—and Red Sea Farms is helping to drive this revolution. The startup is the product of many years of research in KAUST labs, now commercialized and ready to change the face of agriculture in the Middle East and other water-scarce regions," said Kevin Cullen, the vice president of innovation and economic development at KAUST where Red Sea Farms was developed.

"We're thrilled to partner with Red Sea Farms. With the earth's resources depleting at an alarming rate, food and water security have become pressing global challenges. Powered by KAUST's ecosystem of scientific and tech knowledge, Red Sea Farms is envisioning sustainable and innovative ways of addressing these issues in the region and the world, with the ultimate objective of leaving our planet better than we found it for the generations to come," said general partner Noor Sweid at Global Ventures.

A KAUST spinout advised by Kirchner Group, Red Sea Farms was originally founded by Tester, a plant scientist, and Lefers, an agricultural engineering expert. The pair recently acquired Iyris Advanced Desert Greenhouses, a maker of smart glass that integrates solar technologies and optical tuning developed by KAUST Professor Derya Baran, who became a co-founder.

Red Sea Farms received a $1.9 million investment in 2019 from the KAUST Innovation Fund and Saudi-based Research Products Development Company. A leading graduate research university, KAUST is a major innovator of sustainable agriculture solutions for the Middle East and other water-scarce regions.