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Innovative vanilla dome ready for investors to scale Australian production

Founder, David Soo, inspecting and separating the vines | Photography by Nick Cubbin | Words by Casey Dunn

Australia’s diverse geography, world-class production systems and innovative farmers make us a global leader in the production of a huge range of agricultural products. But until now, scaled production of one crop has alluded us: vanilla.

IT entrepreneur David Soo has risen to the challenge with Australian Vanilla Plantations (AVP), a startup on a mission to make Australia a major player in the global vanilla market. Integrating innovative technology and plant physiology, AVP’s Vanilla Dome is a turnkey solution that engineers out many of the challenges that once made vanilla commercially unviable.

With domestic and international partnerships locked in, the opportunity exists for investors to help scale production of AVP’s proprietary geodesic dome greenhouse – and grow Australia’s share of the lucrative vanilla market.

  • Learn more about the investment opportunity, via growAG. here. Expressions of Interest close Friday, 30 September 2022.   

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Australian Vanilla Plantations

Australian Vanilla Plantations aims to commercialise vanilla research completed by an Australian university and create a viable vanilla industry.
  • Location

    Australia, Global

  • Organisation type

    Industry body, Private research organisation, Startup or Scaleup or SME

The world’s most popular spice, vanilla beans freshly harvested from Australian Vanilla Plantations dome

A demanding – and in demand – spice 

It might be the world’s most popular spice, but vanilla is notoriously challenging to grow. So much so that 99% of the global market for vanilla flavour is supplied by synthetics.

“I was curious why we don’t grow vanilla in Australia at scale,” explained David. “But it didn’t take long to uncover. As soon as I started to address one challenge around scaling to commercial production, another appeared. And another.”

From ensuring plants get even amounts of sunlight, to maintaining temperature and humidity to replicate the tropical growing conditions that vanilla requires, one solution emerged that addressed them all: the geodesic dome.

Dome-shaped greenhouse offers unparalleled structural and production advantages

“Domes are humanity’s most efficient super structure – and an obvious choice for a greenhouse design,” said David. 

Australian Vanilla Plantation Founder, David Soo at his geodesic dome greenhouse. At 11 metres wide and 5.5m high, AVP’s Vanilla Domes are substantial structures that have been fully optimised for agricultural production.

“The circular shape allows maximum volume for the footprint, which is critical for air circulation. Unlike a rectangular greenhouse, heat won’t build up on one side of a dome. Domes naturally maintain a more consistent temperature.” 

At 11 metres wide and 5.5m high, AVP’s Vanilla Domes are substantial structures that, through David’s meticulous problem-solving, have been fully optimised for agricultural production. The transparent walls are made of a patented German bubble wrap-like material, which maximises sunlight penetration while maintaining thermal efficiency. Inside the dome, a rotating ‘wagon wheel’ of eight trellises supports the growth of 200 vanilla vines.

“In most greenhouses, plants facing the sun can get too much sun, while the ones behind them don’t get enough,” said David. “The idea behind rotation is that plants get as much natural sunlight as possible throughout the day, and that it is evenly spread.”

“Our plants are constantly rotating – 45 degrees every 10 minutes – which provides for very even growth rates.”

David Soo, inspecting and separating the vines. The geodesic design of the dome allows for better humidity and airflow management.

The columns which house the vines offer a host of thoughtful design elements, too. Standing 1.8m high, the columns feature an inner and outer ring – approximately 25 centimetres apart – which growers weave vines through to maximise plant length per column.

“We pack the columns with mulch to promote microbial activity and in particular, the symbiotic relationship between the vine’s feeder roots and the mycorrhizal fungi that grow on them,” added David. “And we irrigate through the core, ensuring even penetration of moisture and minimal evaporative losses.”

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Growing conditions aside, another major obstacle for commercial vanilla production is labour. Outside of its native birthplace Mexico, where it’s pollinated by wild bees, vanilla must be hand pollinated – challenging viability in an expensive labour market, such as Australia.

“The biggest labour cost is in the time it takes to walk between vines looking for flowers to pollinate,” explained David. “By increasing plant density and designing the growing system to keep 80% of flowers within arm’s reach, we’re pollinating much faster – reducing costs and improving profitability.”

Automation means anyone can become a vanilla grower 

David’s dream is to put vanilla growing within reach of the average person. He’s doing that by taking the guesswork out of production, with clever automations that regulate temperature, humidity, irrigation, lighting and fertiliser application.

“The only regular activity a grower will need do to aid growth, is to weave the vines through the columns as they grow.”  

  • Learn more about the investment opportunity, via growAG. here. Expressions of Interest close Friday, 30 September 2022.  
Australian Vanilla Plantation. Woongarrah, NSW: cured vanilla beans

Impressive yield gains justify going the extra mile with design process

Like all fruiting plants, vanilla must reach a certain level of maturity before it produces flowers. “Typically, vines might be 10m long before they flower, so there’s a long lag of up to five years before growers see a return. But the vines within our Vanilla Dome produce flowers at just 2.5m.”

And they’re putting more flowers on, too: one node every 10-15cm, compared to a typical ratio of one node per metre. But David is striving for even more productivity.

“Our next research project will look at whether we can use LED lights as an external stimulant to encourage year-round flowering. Research out of the Netherlands suggests we could. That will mean we get to a point where we can automate the lighting system to give growers two buttons: one for growth, and one for flowering.” 

Collaborations benefit not just the business, but the global vanilla industry 

David has worked hard to create strong networks that boost the prospects of a commercial vanilla industry in Australia, including engagement with AgriFutures Australia’s Emerging Industries Program, involving valuable contributions to the 'Vanilla Production in Australia Feasibility Report'. APV is collaborating with CSIRO on its research program and was recently granted two hectares for a 25 dome plantation and processing facility within the Western Sydney University’s (WSU) Hawkesbury Agri-Tech Hub.

State governments are interested, too, with the NSW Government looking to establish its own trial plantations and the NT Government granting resources and facilities to validate AVP’s vanilla processing methodology.

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Founder, David Soo inspects cured beans.

“The traditional method of curing green beans is simply to put them out in the sun. But that unregulated approach makes it impossible to control the outcome. The beans get mouldy. They rot. Or they get too much sun and dry out too quickly, [compromising the vanillin yield]. It’s not uncommon for growers to lose up to 80% of their harvest,” explained David.

“Our processing techniques – based on WSU research – deliver cheaper, faster, more consistent results with higher vanillin yield and fewer losses. We’re already curing beans for Indonesian and Papua New Guinean growers, paying them more for green beans than they would earn for the finished product. We’re carving out a place for Australia as a key member of the global vanilla community.”

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Range of investment options to suit budding vanilla growers 

With a strong development roadmap and growing market interest, AVP bears exciting potential for investors looking to get behind something new.

“This opportunity will particularly appeal to investors with expertise and experience in manufacturing and/or agriculture, greenhouse fabrication and an interest in scaling production of AVP’s proprietary geodesic dome greenhouse (GDG) technology in Australia.”

“We see ourselves as a legitimate investment option for the average person,” said David. “A ‘green’ asset class that not only provides strong returns, but appeals to their values, too.”

While investors can invest directly into the business to speed production of AVP’s 25-dome plantation, there are also pathways for budding vanilla growers who want to get in on the action.

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Australian Vanilla Plantation, Founder, David Soo is looking for investors to scale Australian production.

“Investors can lease a dome from the AVP plantation, or purchase a dome outright to operate on their own farm.” Growers are already getting behind that option, with a three-dome plantation set to be installed in Dingo, Queensland.

“Our driver is to help anyone become a vanilla grower. To do that, we’ll offer an offtake agreement where we help growers to set up the automation systems, optimise production and buy back their beans for processing, in the same way we do with overseas suppliers.”

“Vanilla might already be used in 18,000 products worldwide, but there’s so much more to learn about its potential. We want to build an ecosystem of growers, researchers and investors who can tap into that.”