Indoor farming takes root at UTM

MScSM students, Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela at the Innovation Complex
Friday, March 3, 2017 - 4:16pm
Sarah Jane Silva

On the second-floor lobby of the Innovation Complex at the University of Toronto Mississauga, a plastic tower sprouts a variety of produce including curly starbor kale, buttercrunch and collard greens.

Rising almost six feet off the ground and illuminated by high output fluorescent bulbs, it gives the often high-traffic, student-centred space a futuristic feel.

As part of their final capstone project, Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MScSM) students, Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela have partnered with Modular Farms Co., a startup company that specializes in vertical farming systems, to create distribution channels and service packages for their indoor gardening farm wall.

“You can grow pretty much anything,” said Jakiela. “Here, we’ve already grown three different types of lettuce, Genovese basil, joi choi, peppermint and parsley.”

From seed to harvest, it takes about four weeks to grow leafy greens and herbs. “And if you stagger it correctly you can harvest it almost every day,” added Tidd.

But it’s more than what they’re growing that sets them apart. It’s also how.

The farm wall grows plants hydroponically — that is, with nutrient solution instead of soil. The water nourishes the roots, collects in a gutter and then recirculates back to a nutrient tank that feeds back into the hydroponic system. It costs just under $25 a month in electricity.

The seedlings, nestled in plugs made of peat moss, begin in a tray and are placed under a humidity dome where they germinate and are fed different levels of nutrients and pH. After a couple of weeks, they're ready to be transplanted into the tower.

Found within the tower, wicking strips help water find the path of least resistance by controlling the water flow and taking the water directly to the seedling roots. “It’s a white cloth that you open up and put the plug in and then you close it like a sandwich and put it into the tower,” said Jakiela.

Although the produce the farm wall yields is not organic-certified yet, Just Vertical uses organic-based practices, foregoing herbicides and pesticides. “When you’re outside, you’re exposed to pests and fungi,” said Tidd. “Unless you’re using herbicides and pesticides, it’s going to be a problem especially when you’re growing strawberries and tomatoes.”

“With Just Vertical, Kevin and Conner have a great product in place, and manufacturing is lined up so now the initial focus will be on market validation,” said Sam Dumcum, the programs, strategic relationships and innovation lead at ICUBE, UTM's on-campus incubator that provides start-up support to new ventures at any stage.

“Who are the customers that want to grow fresh produce in their home with organic practices and how do we find them?”

Dumcum says that by focusing on market research during the next phase of their startup, Just Vertical will be able to have a solid base with which to advertise and sell their product, but also to appeal to investors.

“And as far as being part of an incubator goes, when you’re around other entrepreneurs, other ideas just pop up.”