Japan’s Panasonic Corporation may be primarily associated in the public mind with consumer electronics, but in some parts of the world, it is selling a very different kind of product: vegetables.

Panasonic has branched out to grow lettuce and other vegetables in hi-tech indoor farms in Japan and Singapore, and now has its sights on Russia. Photo: Panasonic.

The company already has automated factories in Japan and Singapore where lettuce and other vegetables are grown indoors in controlled and optimised conditions. Now it is eying Russia as the site for its next agricultural enterprise – and is looking to the Skolkovo innovation city for the latest hi-tech solutions.

“This year, we plan to launch a pilot project on the territory of Skolkovo,” German Gavrilov, head of business development for Panasonic Russia, told a selection of Skolkovo startups who presented their projects to him and other Panasonic representatives on Monday. The pilot project should yield its first harvest by the end of this year, he added.

As a key partner of the Skolkovo Foundation, Panasonic is researching agrotech solutions offered by its resident startups that could make the corporation’s cutting-edge agricultural enterprises even more efficient and innovative, particularly in the Russian business environment, said Gavrilov.

Panasonic’s indoor vegetable farms use LED lamps and complex ventilation systems to grow lettuce, radishes, cherry tomatoes and other vegetables faster than in open culture. Since the plants are grown indoors in a carefully controlled sterile environment, they are not at risk from the parasites and diseases that can blight outdoor crops, meaning they can be grown without the use of pesticides. The company says its use of water- and energy-saving devices has enabled it to achieve production costs that are 50-60 percent cheaper than its competitors.

The Japanese corporation is currently developing a system for converting shipping containers into solar powered plant-growing facilities capable of producing and storing their own energy. The containers, which can be added together to increase their capacity, are designed for use in places that don’t have the natural conditions for growing plants.

German Gavrilov, head of business development at Panasonic Russia. Photo: Sk.ru.

Roman Kulikov, acceleration director within Skolkovo's biomed cluster, said Russian startups offer a range of technologies that could be integrated into innovative agriculture endeavours.

“We have lots to offer, from hardware and mechanical equipment to IT and energy-saving technologies,” he told Sk.ru ahead of the meeting at Skolkovo's Hypercube building.

A dozen Skolkovo startups presented their projects to Panasonic on Monday, ranging from energy-saving greenhouses designed for harsh climates and a wireless system for monitoring agricultural production to an industrial Internet of Things platform and a self-cleaning coating for glass. Most were residents of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster, which includes an agricultural subdivision, along with projects from the IT and energy-efficient technologies clusters. Two projects were presented by representatives of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech).

The biomed cluster launched its agro subdivision 18 months ago, and is home to a variety of projects devoted to smart agriculture, including hydroponics, in which plants are grown in water containing nutrients rather than soil, and aeroponics, in which plant roots are exposed to the air but frequently sprayed with atomized nutrients, said Kulikov.

“Each cluster has solutions and approaches that could be used in automated systems,” he said, adding that if Monday’s meeting proved a success, projects from Skolkovo’s two other clusters – nuclear and new industrial technologies, and space and telecommunications – could also be presented to Panasonic.

“We’ve been working with Skolkovo since the very beginning, since 2011, and during that time have cooperated very successfully, including with startups," said Gavrilov, citing the example of Panasonic's partnership with Skolkovo resident startup RAIDIX, which makes data storage systems for industries such as media and entertainment, video surveillance and high-performance computing. The two companies have now signed several agreements and are making ambitious joint business plans for 1 billion rubles ($17.6 million) in Russian sales alone, he said.

“Panasonic is a key partner of the Skolkovo Foundation, and as part of our cooperation, we are taking some of our partners on a tech tour to Japan in March, including four IT startups that Panasonic considers to have the most potential,” said Gavrilov.

Skolkovo signed a strategic business cooperation agreement with Panasonic Russia during a state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan at the end of last year, building on an earlier partnership agreement.