Just Vertical: making furniture that feeds you

As we navigate a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.

Just Vertical—one of 16 ventures participating in this year’s Earth Tech accelerator run by CSI’s Climate Ventures—creates furniture that feeds you. If you haven’t ever thought that was something you needed, consider the environmental impact of growing and shipping all the produce you eat. What if, instead of importing strawberries from California and tomatoes from Mexico, you were able to grow them in your own kitchen (or living room, or closet)?

Just Vertical’s co-founders, Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela, aim to make sustainable, hyper-local produce a reality for city-dwellers and people in remote areas alike. Bullfrog Power caught up with Kevin to find out how they’re making the world a greener place, and how Earth Tech is accelerating their efforts.

The seed of an idea

Fittingly, Just Vertical was born during lunch. Kevin had just come back from pioneering indoor growing research in the Canadian Arctic. “I’d seen firsthand how cutting-edge plant science and hardware could be used to grow produce in any environment,” he recalled. Meanwhile, Conner was working in stakeholder management and was managing backlash against the modern agricultural system.

Kevin shovels snow out from a greenhouse in Nunavut

Together, they came up with an idea to disrupt the agriculture industry in style: to design a hydroponic growing system that fits seamlessly into an urban living space. This idea became the AEVA, a vertical indoor garden that can grow up to 10 pounds of produce a month, all year round. Conner and Kevin brought the AEVA from ideation to market in only 8 months, attracting plenty of attention from the cleantech sector in the process.

“Traditional agriculture is in a dire place,” Kevin said. “The current solutions aren’t cutting it for customers. If we want to build sustainable food systems in cities, we need something that customers actually want to adopt.”

To make sure the AEVA would suit just about anyone’s lifestyle and home, Kevin and Conner designed it to be as hands-off as possible. You plug in the seed pods, fill up the water reservoir every two weeks, and the AEVA takes care of the plants’ light and water needs. In fact, Just Vertical’s hydroponic technique uses 95-99% less water than traditional farming—it’s also pesticide free.

The AEVA can grow staples like leafy greens, cherry tomatoes, and herbs, as well as rare plants that you won’t find in stores. Kevin described an arugula-wasabi crossbreed, a variety of lemongrass that tastes like Froot Loops, and more types of basil than we knew existed. He even sourced Japanese edible orchids for a high-end Toronto restaurant!

Starting to sprout

As a startup, Just Vertical is already seeing considerable sustainability progress. “At the end of the day, what we’re most proud of us in the impact that we‘ve managed to have” Kevin told us. “If we didn’t sell another system or grow another plant, we’re happy to say we’ve already saved over 2 million litres of water, grown over 10,000 pounds of fresh, local food, and eliminated over 100 million miles of food transport. Together, we can build on these numbers and create the necessary impact for a growing world.”

Kevin and Conner want to build a world in which everyone can grow their own nutritious, sustainable food. That applies to apartment-dwellers without a garden, as well as to people in remote communities with little access to fresh produce.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the Canadian Arctic studying and understanding food systems and supply chains,” Kevin said. “I’m a banana-a-day kind of person, but fresh produce is expensive up north—if you can find it at all. With waits of up to six weeks for brown, mushy bananas that cost $2 each, I wasn’t a banana-a-day guy anymore.”

“Feeling the effects of food insecurity in remote places in the north inspired a newfound passion in me—to bring fresh, healthy food to northern Canada and other isolated areas. This is about more than building a business for us. This is a passion project where we can drive significant change in the world.”

Kevin Jakiela

To explore how indoor gardening can improve wellbeing, Just Vertical installed an AEVA in a senior care facility. Residents were able to name their plants (including a head of lettuce named Little Joe), care for them, and take a cooking class using the produce they grew. “There’s a real social benefit—a happiness factor that you can’t really quantify,” Kevin told us.

Check out this video to see the heartwarming results of indoor gardening!

Just Vertical has been a strong revenue generator so far, thanks to traction from early sales and their subscription-based plant sales. But it didn’t come easily—raising capital, solving shipping logistics issues, and sourcing quality parts were all major undertakings for the two young entrepreneurs. “There was a massive learning curve,” Kevin admitted. “Being part of Earth Tech and having the ability to run ideas by our mentors and advisors has been extremely helpful for us.”

Nowhere to go but up

Kevin and Conner are working hard to maximize their impact and take advantage of Earth Tech and Climate Venture’s other programs and services. They launched a Just Vertical app, and they’ve finished designing and building the EVE, a mini version of the AEVA. They even offer commercial-scale hydroponic farming for spaces from 100 to over 5,000 square feet.

“Our dream is to increase food security around the world,” Kevin said. “We hope our indoor farming technology will enable individuals to grow their own nutritious food, all year round, and help create a sense of food sovereignty within remote communities. As a complement to the existing food system, Just Vertical can help people eat better while lightening their impact on the planet.”

Just Vertical is offering a $100 discount to the bullfrogpowered community with this code: BullfrogPower

Learn more about Earth Tech and meet the other ventures here!


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