While the heat of summer is in high gear outside, tomatoes are ripening inside our air-conditioned office. There is no garden or soil, just a six-foot tall metal tower illuminated by LEDs. Yet the tomato plants are thriving. This is the indoor hydroponic garden prototype from Just Vertical, a Techno2017 alumni and current Impact Centre resident company.
The seed for Just Vertical started when Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela were completing their Master’s of Science degrees in Sustainability Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
While working around the globe and talking about food sustainability, Conner encountered people interested in growing their own food but not sure of where to start. At the same time, Kevin was working on hydroponic modules for growing food in the Arctic.
“That’s when the idea was born,” said Conner. “I saw the problem and he saw the solution, and we came together and actually started it as our capstone project for our masters.”
They set up a demo unit purely as an academic exercise. “Then our coordinator said, ‘You guys have the potential for a great venture here, at least try it out,’ so we did,” Conner shared. “We more or less got forced into our first incubator, ICUBE.”
After 4 months at ICUBE, an incubator at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, they participated in Techno2017. “ICUBE was very much early stage, testing ideas and fleshing it out. Techno helped us refine the model and evaluate what kind of business we were at the core and how we can make money to scale up.”
Just Vertical now operates with a hardware sales and subscription model, where Conner and Kevin sell not only the hydroponic module, but also seed and custom-blended nutrient kits.
“In academia, designing this would be completely about how to build this as efficient and functional as possible. As entrepreneurs, all of that is still important, but now we also need to take into account all the customers’ needs – does it look good, is it going to provide storage space, how is it shipped, etc. All these other questions that you would not be worrying about in academia.”
With a stained wooden cabinet and sleek metal frame, the AEVA looks like it would fit perfectly in a modern house as both an indoor garden and a statement piece.
Meanwhile, Conner and Kevin are constantly testing new products, new plants for their module. “Being an entrepreneur, we try to iterate as fast as possible. Trying to get results fast, that’s the name of the game.”
While he never planned to become an entrepreneur, Conner is excited to see Just Vertical’s growth and the impact it is making. At the core of Just Vertical is the “8 billion before 8 billion” commitment. They pledge that, before the 8 billionth person is born, they will eliminate 8 billion food miles, save 8 million litres of water, and grow 800 thousand pounds of local sustainable food.
“We just passed a million litres of water saved and I feel that we are on the right track.” Conner has a global plan for Just Vertical. “We’d like to do Canada and the U.S. this year, expanding to Europe in 2019, and then global in 2020.”
Looking back, the experience has been very challenging but rewarding. “Entrepreneurship takes a lot of self-discipline and perseverance. There will be things you don’t know, you just have to ready to learn, to pickup new skills and learn how to use them.”
For Conner, entrepreneurship is about passion. Anyone looking to become an entrepreneur should find something that they enjoy, something that makes them feel good. “There are a lot of bad days, days that you are not making money, days that you are hearing no a lot. You got to have something about your business that you enjoy or that you appreciate at a very deep level. For us, our environmental metric is what really drives us at the end of the day. We can save water, eliminate food waste, save carbon emission.”