Just Vertical can produce over 10 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables a month in less than 6 square feet.
When looking down the barrell of global food insecurity, shortages of agricultural lands, and damaging fertilizers and pesticides it can be demoralizing. However, let me assure you there are some great companies and great people working on these challenges. I am Conner Tidd, the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Just Vertical and this is our sustainability story.
As an alumni of the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management program from the University of Toronto I am acutely aware of the many problems our environment faces. When it comes to modern food systems we are rapidly running out of good farmland, urbanites are disconnected from their food systems, and our global environment is increasingly strained and polluted. With my co-founder Kevin Jakiela this is something we are set on changing. This all started as the first year of our MScSM program was about to end, it was the beginning of an exciting summer that we will not soon forget.
I took off to Calgary where I would spend 4 months working in the Innovation & Public Affairs department of one of the largest agricultural companies in the world. It was there that I saw many of the struggles that the “Big Ag” world faces and at the same time I met droves of people who were frustrated with the modern food system. I listened to so many people who felt frustrated, and angry at their inability to make any changes in the food system. The sentiment I heard expressed over and over was that people wanted to grow their own food, with a minimal environmental footprint, in their own spaces but they didn’t know where to start. At the same time Kevin Jakiela was working with Modular Farms co. an urban agriculture company that focuses on selling whole urban farms encased in controlled growing environments. During one of my cross country trips back to Toronto, we sat down and asked ourselves how we could combine our expertise to solve the problems so many people were frustrated with. This conversation in late August was where Just Vertical was truly born.
I saw many of the struggles that the “Big Ag” world faces and at the same time I met droves of people who were frustrated with the modern food system.
The idea would brew over the next several months between emails as I spent the following 4 months in Geneva, Switzerland exploring social regulation, standardization, and how the European market deals with food production. During my time on that side of the world I had the opportunity to speak at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Marrakesh, Morroco where I saw first hand many of the innovations driving sustainability around the world. The ingenuity of some of these products that I saw created from elementary school children to PhD students stoked the fire inside me. My time in both Europe and Africa witnessing first hand global efforts around sustainability drove me to come home and say “OK, how is Canada going to contribute to these efforts”. In January 2017 work on Just Vertical started in earnest.
Let me preface this by saying we had no idea what we were getting into when we started this. Our initial intention was an academic exercise to ‘demonstrate the feasibility of decentralized agriculture in semi-controlled environments’ AKA an academic experiment. This was our first of many mistakes. We launched our pilot program at the University of Toronto in partnership with Modular Farms and Zipgrow Canada. This was a simple two-tower structure growing in the lobby of an academic building. To our surprise people absolutely loved it! We had everyone from students to directors to maintenance staff saying they were blown away and asking how they could get one for themselves. This was when we began to realize we had something (potentially) big on our hands. Very quickly we found ourselves in the ICUBE entrepreneurship program developing the business while finishing our master’s thesis and working part-time as a teaching assistant and researcher.
The hours upon hours of presenting, learning to distill scientific knowledge into an everyday vocabulary was our biggest asset.
We quickly developed a business plan, logo, and website. The resources provided from ICUBE were integral to our success and helping to develop us from students and scientists to entrepreneurs. During this time we saw the skills honed in our MScSM program come to life in an invaluable way. The hours upon hours of presenting, learning to distill scientific knowledge into an everyday vocabulary was our biggest asset. Looking back the #1 thing we did right in the early days and still push today is getting out there and talking to people. We brought our little two tower system to every trade show, competition, and exhibition we could. This is where we forged some of our key partnerships and picked up some early wins. Most importantly though we got to interact with our customers and figure out what they liked, and what they didn’t.
It was this constant pitching of our venture that allowed us to zero in on the customer’s problems. For 99% of people it was not the lack of access to a home growing option that was holding them back from the urban agriculture movement. It was the lack of time and the confusion around how to get from a seed to what is on your plate. This is why we designed our business to be an enabler and not just a hardware supplier. We specialize in setting people up with the system they need, but more importantly we provide the correct plants, nutrients, and light recipes to go with it. This is a blind spot we would never have identified without the constant customer interaction.
We specialize in setting people up with the system they need, but more importantly we provide the correct plants, nutrients, and light recipes to go with it.
It was this coachability, customer interaction, and willingness to learn that has driven our success. I remember standing on the stage at the ICUBE pitch night explaining what we do. Telling the audience: at Just Vertical we are enabling anyone and everyone to grow their own produce at home with state of the art technologies as well as our services that address the gaps consumers face in growing their own food. We have taken the most productive, state of the art technology, and brought our plant science knowledge to develop a solution that allows people to grow 100’s of lbs of food per year in as little as 4 square feet, while using up to 99% less water, no biotechnology, and no pesticides.
In those moments on stage and answering questions it gave us the opportunity to reflect on all the lessons we have learned and our path going forwards. We ended up winning $5000 that night, but more importantly we got to show the world that a sustainability driven start-up is the way of the future. The single most important piece of advice I can give is that your venture can’t be driven by monetary goals alone. Yes being financially sustainable is important for long term success but it won’t make you happy. In the initial 7 months of 80 hour work weeks and maxed out credit cards we put every dime we made directly back into growing the company. This was an extremely stressful time that we only endured because we could see the sustainability wins piling up. This leads us to the core goals of our company.
What really matters at Just Vertical is the difference we can make. At the core of their company is the 8 billion before 8 billion commitment where we pledge that before the 8 billionth person is born we will: eliminate 8 billion food miles, save 8 million litres of water, and grow 800 thousand pounds of local sustainable food. At Just Vertical the most important reward and recognition we get is the impact in our customers and communities. From small to large we can help feed Canadians while saving water, and minimizing environmental impacts.
What keeps us going on the day-to-day is our projects that we can see making a visible impact in people’s lives, when we can help alleviate hunger and poverty. Currently on the go we are building a system for the University of Toronto Mississauga food bank where we are projected to grow 1000lbs of food over the next year for students in need, developing a curriculum to educate youth in the Canadian arctic on how to grow their own food, and pioneering research into hydroponically grown hops for a craft brewer.
Following the model of Uber and AirBnB, Just Vertical plans to be the largest farmer in the world through its residential and commercial networks without ever owning a piece of farmland. Just Vertical has gone on to a multi-million-dollar valuation in their seed round and currently employs 7 staff members, but more importantly continues to have significant sustainability impacts.
For more information on Just Vertical please follow the links below:
Conner Tidd is Co-Founder of Just Vertical and welcomes any and all inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org
More info on the MScSM program can be found here.