Member Spotlight: Mathew Howe
Member Spotlight: Mathew Howe
To blend the aesthetic quality of a green wall with the functionality of modern controlled-environment agriculture in something that looks like a piece of furniture. That’s how Mathew Howe, Founder and Executive Director of Grobrix, envisioned the vertical farm system he wanted to create. Looking at the Grobrix-designed green wall at LATITUDE Bistro, it is clear that he succeeded in his vision. One wonders how an engineer who had spent the last 15 years of his career in banking did so—“it was to scratch a creative itch, ”offers Mathew.
A NEW DIRECTION
Born and brought up in the UK, Mathew made Singapore his home in 2010 to experience the expat life here. It was also a way for the half Malaysian-Chinese to reconnect with his maternal family roots. A career in banking and the birth of two lovely daughters, now 9 and 5 years respectively, made it an even sweeter deal.
When the pandemic hit the world in 2019, Mathew like many others like him had reached a crossroad in his life and career. Many Singaporeans baked bread, but Mathew started growing basil in his balcony garden—because his daughters loved eating green pesto and the store-bought ones were neither fresh nor fragrant.
Mathew revelled in the entire process of germinating the plant from seeds, allowing it to thrive, and then harvesting it to feed his family. His fascination grew from there to finding ways in which people could lead more self-sufficient, sustainable lives by growing their own food. Before long, Mathew did a drastic pivot from the financial industry into farming.
“I started to envision a way in which vertical or urban farming could perhaps come out of the warehouse, shipping container or factory, which is where it’s typically done in Singapore, and could be done in restaurants, offices, clubs, retirement homes, and schools and universities.”
Not your typical solution-driven thought process, considering Singapore’s harsh tropical climate and the fact that Mathew had no prior knowledge of gardening—on such a large scale, at least. His grandmother and father are keen gardeners, but farm-to-table processes were hardly dinner table conversations growing up. But there was no turning back for Mathew—he had reached a point in his life when the fear of not knowing or trying overrode that of failure.
Armed with that mindset and 10 years of banking-sales experience, Mathew set out to sell his concept to investors. His 3D-printed product model and PowerPoint presentation outlining how and where he wanted to take his business in the future, appealed to the need of the hour. “There is always something compelling for different reasons at any moment in time. There’s always a story in the press, which pushes us to say, ‘okay, we should definitely do this at the moment’—be it droughts in Europe, water shortages, uncharacteristic weather, or food security,” explains Mathew.
Grobrix was relevant at a time of COVID-19—Singaporeans were renewing their healthy-living goals and in search of ways to meaningfully occupy their time during lockdown. With offices increasingly evolving into spaces where employees could also reconnect with themselves, a green wall of edible herbs ticked all relevant boxes, fitting right in with the rest of the wellness-focused immersive experiences on offer.
TAKING A STAND
Starting out solo, Mathew had first-hand experience of the pain points of farming and maintenance of the system. Grobrix was therefore modelled after the concept of a personal urban farmer. “Think of this as a cross between a gardener and a personal trainer,” he explains. “In that sense, we provide the materials, equipment, experience and education, and do all the dirty work.”
His team is now four-members strong including himself, but it’s all hands on deck at all times—from farming and packing the seedlings, to marketing and tending to the systems installed around the island.
Running a business has been all consuming, admits Mathew. But it’s a small price to pay for the fulfilment he gets seeing people’s faces light up as they start pulling food off the wall and when they realise that a part of what’s on their plate came from this sustainable source. “Making people happy, having them enjoy what you do—I think that’s what gets me out of bed,” says Mathew.
He drops in on his “offsprings” at LATITUDE Bistro often as he lives right next to the Club. Watching him tend lovingly to the greens, it is obvious that Mathew has found his purpose. Grobrix is the legacy he wants to leave behind for his girls. “They are a large part of the reason why I started the company. I wanted to do something that could engage them, which I could not do in my previous job.”
His current schedule does cut in on his family time. But considering the number of times he mentions his daughters in the course of the conversation, it’s a matter of time before the doting dad finds a way to ace his work-life balance as well.