Innovation & Inspiration


Healthy greenery on 15 floors

Published: 04. June 2023

Innovation Und Inspiration4 Innovation Und Inspiration4 Innovation Und Inspiration4 Innovation Und Inspiration4

Our planet is currently home to around eight billion people. In order to feed them all, the available cultivated land must be managed ever more efficiently. Mark Zahran, who is actually an architect, was already intensively involved with the topic of nutrition during his studies. The result was the founding of YASAI, a spin-off from ETH Zurich that operates vertical farming based on the principle of circular economy. An idea that fell on HIAG's ears.

If you get off the train in Niederhasli and look around to the north, you don't see much at first. An industrial estate with several halls, office buildings, car parks. Nothing out of the ordinary, then. But what is being built here in one of the unadorned halls could one day revolutionise the way we produce food. A look through one of the windows reveals - surprisingly - a view of greenery. That makes you curious to see more. Mark Zahran is CEO and co-founder of the ETH spin-off YASAI. The name comes from Japanese and means "vegetable". Together with Philipp Bosshard (CTO) and Stefano Augstburger (CCO), the architect is pursuing the vision of finding a solution to the increasingly urgent food problem. Their solution is called Vertical Farming. "With vertical farming, you can cultivate up to 200 times more herbs and leafy vegetables per square metre of land than with conventional field cultivation," Mark tells us. "Plus, this type of farming requires 95 per cent less fresh water and uses no chemical pesticides at all." How this works can be seen in the hall.

Cultivation not horizontal, but vertical
The plant beds are arranged vertically on tables on up to 15 levels - like in a high-bay warehouse. The plants are not planted in soil, but float in water enriched with a nutrient solution. The light needed for growth is provided by an LED lighting system. This has a decisive advantage: the plants can be illuminated around the clock and grow accordingly quickly. And unlike in nature, where climate and weather only allow cultivation in certain phases, here production can take place 365 days a year. The plant is also automated: The tables whose plants are ripe for harvesting are transported on a conveyor belt to the next station. There, the YASAI employees harvest and pack the various herbs, currently peppermint, basil, dill and coriander. The sledge system is not only practical, but also important for YASAI from an economic point of view. "Switzerland is a high-price country," says Mark Zahran. "If we want to compete with products from other countries, this automation is a key factor."

An impressive solution to a current challenge. But it is also clear that the requirements for the production site are very complex. And the expansion is correspondingly cost-intensive. The start-up capital came from various sources, as Mark tells us: "Of course we did typical venture capital funding, but we also successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign and also received loans." So the young entrepreneurs were able to master this challenge well. But funding is only one part of successfully launching a start-up - finding a suitable location is just as big a challenge.

«With vertical farming, you can cultivate up to 200 times more herbs and leafy vegetables per square metre than with conventional field cultivation.» Mark Zahran, CEO YASAI

Innovation Und Inspiration2
Innovation Und Inspiration1
Innovation Und Inspiration2
Innovation Und Inspiration1

What does a YASAI location need?
"We made a few attempts at different locations. In the beginning, we didn't even know which zone we could be assigned to," says Mark Zahran. "Are we a farm? If not, then what is YASAI? And what regulations does that entail?" These questions are symptomatic of the challenges many young founders face. They know their technology and their business - but they only gradually realise the administrative hurdles involved in setting up a company. Alex Römer, site developer at HIAG, knows these challenges. "We often experience that companies don't know exactly what they actually need. Then we try to understand the ideas and needs of the prospective tenants exactly and support them with our experience, and help to find an optimal solution."

The founding team of YASAI knew what they wanted their hall to look like - but along the way, the know-how of the experienced area developers was indispensable. But from the beginning: Mark Zahran and his co-founders had to evaluate their possible future location according to different criteria. "The first thing we looked at was a greenhouse, where we would then have installed our shelves and everything else. But we quickly realised that such greenhouses are not high enough for our system." The logical conclusion was to look for an industrial hall. They finally found a suitable object in the greater Zurich area. But the project failed because the authorities refused to give their approval. "That was quite a bitter setback for us, because we were in the starting blocks but had no place to start."

Unexpected luck in the search
The turning point finally came when Philipp Bosshard came across a property online. "I was looking at umpteen such factory halls at the time and especially online," the environmental engineer recounts. "There are quite a few industrial halls, but most of them are barely more than a few metres high." But then he saw the offer from HIAG in Niederhasli. The catch was that it was only advertised for interim use for a maximum of two years. So Bosshard turned it down with a heavy heart. One week later, however, something unexpected happened: the responsible site developer contacted the young entrepreneurs and asked them how long YASAI would like to rent the space. "We then said that we would need at least five years." HIAG, owner and developer of the site in Niederhasli, agreed. A stroke of luck for the start-up, because the hall has everything it needs. It is high enough, has a large load-bearing capacity and was already equipped with powerful power connections. "Even the office was already there," say the YASAI founders. Another factor was the location. Located directly opposite Niederhasli railway station, it allows short distances for the mostly young employees living in an urban environment.

If development goes as expected, YASAI will break even in 2027. The prospects are already good today. YASAI currently supplies around 120 Coop shops with its own herbs, and the herbs are also available at Jelmoli and But that still doesn't bring them to their limits by any means. "We had even expected more and then had to adjust our calculations again. But this way we were able to gain valuable experience. We learn something new every day, which is super exciting." These experiences flow into further planning. "We are now also already planning new, larger vertical farms." In 2026, YASAI will operate the first vertical farm in Switzerland that is integrated into a residential neighbourhood. But this is just the beginning of a big idea that we hope to hear a lot more about.

Cooperation with future prospects
The current lease in Niederhasli runs until summer 2026, which is a good time for YASAI to take the next step in the company's development, says Mark Zahran. "For us, Niederhasli is the pilot plant. Accordingly, it was clear from the beginning that we would have to move to larger locations with the experience we have gained so far. Because our way of vertical farming makes sense especially if you do it on a large scale." Planning for these larger locations is already underway. When asked if he could imagine another collaboration with HIAG, the co-founder clearly answers in the affirmative. "Absolutely! We've actually already talked about what possibilities there would be and where we could fit into HIAG's portfolio and timeline for next projects." Alex Römer confirms these plans: "For us, it is of course also very exciting to work with innovative companies that have ambitious expansion goals. HIAG has 45 sites in Switzerland in its portfolio and has many opportunities to think about new projects together."

3 questions for Alex Römer, site developer at HIAG and responsible for the settlement of YASAI.


Originally, HIAG was looking for an interim use for the hall for two years. How did it come to be a five-year lease?
In site development we move in very long-term processes, and even five years is still an interim use for us. Niederhasli is an industrial site right next to the railway station, so it's in a sought-after location. It is clear that the municipality is striving for a centre development - and that is the step we are preparing. We have a certain amount of time in which the hall can be used until the next development step is ready. In this case, that has matched the needs of YASAI.

Vertical farming is a young, innovative technology. Was HIAG clear from the beginning what YASAI's requirements were for the premises or the site?
We are always looking at exciting, innovative concepts that can fill industrial and commercial halls, because we have quite a few of those in our portfolio. Vertical farming is becoming more and more present, and we as site operators also find this exciting - especially since our claim to ourselves is to be among the pioneers of the industry in the area of sustainability. We want to achieve positive ecological, economic and social effects with our activities. In the case of YASAI, we did not know the requirements in detail, but we worked out a lot together.

How are such halls designed?
When we build a hall, we make sure that it can function for the coming user, in this case YASAI. But it must also function for other users. A hall like this lasts 50 to 100 years, so we always have to have the next cycle in mind. For us, this multifunctionality also means sustainability in practice.