Just Vertical founders, Kevin and Connor discuss the process of creating our two indoor gardens, the AEVA and EVE.
Welcome to in the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food, sustainability and urban agriculture, indoor growing food insecurity, resource consumption, and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.
This podcast is supported by Just Vertical, a Canadian hydroponics company that designs indoor gardens in order to provide people with fresh and healthy produce all year round. In particular, Just Vertical has two hydroponics units called the Aeva and the Eve. Today we're going to be speaking with Just Vertical co-founders Kevin and Conner about these two units - what the motivation behind them was, the design process and consumer resonance.
A plant scientist in chemistry training, Kevin has previously worked with the Oxford County Health Department, screening water for potential contaminants, and as an educator with First Nations Cree in Northern Quebec. Can you talk a bit about your story of founding Just Vertical?
For me, I finished an undergraduate degree in Waterloo, and before I started my master's degree at University of Toronto, I had about eight months before the program started and to move to Toronto. But I needed to make money at the same time. But I also wanted to travel. So both those things don't really align a lot of the time. But luckily I had a friend who started a non profit and it was teaching Indigenous youth in Northern Canada. So it checked the boxes for work, for travel and experience of a lifetime, essentially.
So I moved to the Arctic, I guess the low Arctic in Northern Quebec and Nunavut, where I taught math and science to ten and eleven Indigenous youth. Not a teacher by trade by any means, but I had a science degree, so I could at least teach those aspects of that. I really saw the impacts of food security or food insecurity, for that matter, the quality of food, the abundance of food, the price on food was very high.
For example, I always like to consider myself a banana morning guy every day, and bananas are few and far between. When they get there, they're already brown and mushy, but they're about one to $2 per banana there, so it's quite expensive. To put in context, a two liter jug of Orange juice was $30. A frozen pizza was $40. So it's quite expensive.
But on the other side of things, the things that remain the same price in Toronto or Ottawa would be a bag of chips and a can of coke. And that's where you see a lot of health related issues come from because when you have families that are trying to feed their families and all they can afford to feed everyone is something that's cheap. And the only thing that's cheap is unhealthy food. You have health issues like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and so on and so forth that really affect communities negatively. So it got me thinking.
I met Conner, the University of Toronto, and he can tell you his side of that portion of the story. But I did my master's research in the Northwest Territories, the other side of the Canadian Arctic where I actually used remote sensing, technological sensors and equipment to grow food in Northwest Territories, where primarily you don't really grow food or grow food for that long periods of time and really assess the environment there. So we took these technologies and we made our own business plan on a capstone project at the University of Toronto, blended existing technology in our own business model and plant science and started Just Vertical.
We went on from there to build our own products, grow our own business, grow the team. And that's how it kind of generally started. It was more a project I never thought to be an entrepreneur that never really crossed my mind. Our Masters supervisor, he actually donated $5,000 of his own money to get us started. He said, I really believe in you guys and I think this is the right way to go. I don't think there's too many professors out there that would actually do that. So that was great.
Just Vertical's goal is in part to eradicate and help eradicate food security. Can you elaborate on what this means and how designing indoor gardens are meant to fill this need?
Yeah. So first off, eradicating food security or food insecurity is extremely difficult, something that we cannot do on our own. Our goal is to be a compliment to the combination of solutions that could remediate, mitigate, or hopefully eliminate food insecurity. Our solution is again a compliment to it. So we want to enable anyone that doesn't have that much money to have their own commercial outdoor farm, to have a sustainable mindset and environmentally friendly mindset to grow in their own home all year round and eventually scale that education. That way of thinking, that growing to expanding that into their own indoor gardens, expanding that way. So it's a stepping stone to help the greater good of all the companies in the space, indoor or outdoor, to get to reach that same milestone, essentially.
Can you talk about the process of designing, testing and producing the Aeva in relation to meeting just vertical goals as a company? What about the Eve as well?
Yeah, of course. So it's the same kind of design process for us. The Aeva took a lot longer. It was our first one. We were in a lab at U of Toronto and we made foam cutouts and wooden mock ups and then designed it on CAD and 3D, 2D software platforms. And then from there we made a hard copy of it, essentially a skeleton version of it that didn't work. And then we put the guts into it and we did a lot of testing. We went to a lot of trade shows. We did a lot of in house testing of portions of the product and then went to trade shows to see if there's a customer, I guess overall market fit for it, see if people wanted it and liked it and what they hated about it and iterate and make it better that way.
Eventually we commercialized it, and then we made the Eve because we knew the process. It was a lot more seamless because we made existing technology, some of our patent portion of it that is translatable into the Eve, but also it's translatable into these bigger farms that I've been talking about as well. That way we can also make future products down the road that would actually follow the same kind of design mapping mindset.
So taking industrial design and furniture and beautiful aesthetics into play, of using hydroponics and efficient indoor farming techniques and merging into one thing.
What were the main lessons about design or functionality that were learned after producing these two models? Will these be translated into any future models?
Yeah, there's a lot of mistakes along the way. There's no doubt about it. There's a lot of things looking back now that we think why did we do it that way? But that's the learning experience of it all, any component of it, if it was the plumbing or drainage to the lighting, to the plant pods and just the overall aesthetics, learning about industrial design, concepts of the way contours and lines should line up to the distance, the scientific distance of how far the light should be away from the plant pod without compromising different plant stages and growth stages of it.
There's a lot of trade offs that we had to put into it.
A lot of things that we have to also come to terms with. It's not for everyone. Not everyone is going to like it. Unfortunately, you want everyone to like it, but you can't design for everyone, and then it's just designed for the people that are our target market. And that's one of the biggest hurdles is coming to terms with things not working from the start or issues with certain things or some people saying, this is not for me because you baby it for so long and you really want it to work.
And the reality of it all is it's not meant for everyone. But once you get to that certain point like this, we have it. This is exactly where we want to stop tweaking and fiddling with it and you're happy with it. And then it kind of grows from there because it's that confidence of that product in terms of the learning process, it's everything.
It's everything from how things are put together to how things are sourced to how things are in terms of the financial side of sourcing materials, the trade off that in terms of color, different shades. There's a lot to it that if I didn't know when we designed the Eve back at the Aeva, it would save us a lot of time back there.
Was there anything you noticed in terms of feedback from your target audience?
Yeah, for sure. The biggest thing from design was they liked the fact that when it didn't look like anything else on the market, they liked the fact that it had a wooden cabinet that integrated into their home very seamlessly. They liked the fact that it wasn't on a countertop, because a lot of people have a lot of things on their countertop that they necessarily don't have any more room for. Another thing on their countertop in terms of functionality, they like the fact that it watered itself. They like the fact that it has its own lighting. A lot of people said, well, I have a window for it, so I won't be able to get it.
It’s not necessarily wanting to get their hands dirty, but they do want to feel like they are rewarded for some of the work they put into it. So it's easier than doing standard gardening. There's no doubt about it.
That was Kevin, one of the Just Vertical founders.
We also spoke with his co-founder Conner.
Conner has worked in the notforprofit sector as well as tackling sustainability and innovation challenges in the agricultural industry. Throughout his career, Conner was recognized for his work as a Claim 50 emerging leader and a top 30 under 30 sustainability and human rights leader.
So we had asked Kevin the same question, but can you talk a little bit about your story of founding Just Vertical?
The seed of the idea started for me when I was working for one of the largest agricultural companies in the world, and part of my job was talking to people in cities across Canada.
And one of the things I heard over and over again was people saying, I wish I could grow my own food. I really want to change the way food is grown. I feel like the agricultural system, the big guys aren't listening to me.
And at the same time, Kevin was working in the Arctic. We were friends at the time. He was doing research on how to grow food up there. And I told him about what these people are saying. He said, the technology exists to grow food anywhere. If I can grow it here in the permafrost, people can grow it in their condos. Just no one's leveraged it properly yet. And that's how we started. And the idea kind of blossomed from there, from an academic project to a full fledged company.
Just Vertical wants to be part of the solution to food insecurity. And there are a number of non profits dedicated to doing the same. Why did you choose the commercial route?
So I worked in charity for about three years in the sustainability and the environmental law space. And it's incredible the work, the people that work behind the scenes on these nonprofits, these charities, incredibly passionate and smart people.
But the one thing I saw is that they were constantly facing roadblocks of not having capital, not being able to do X, Y and Z to make a difference. And whether people like it or not, we are living in a world where, unfortunately, money does make things happen. So our approach was how can we do good and do well as a company at the same time and as an individual, I can't bring down the capitalist system.
So if I'm playing within the rules, how can I make as much of a difference as possible while doing that? So that's why we've always worked to integrate sustainability into the company and making that the core piece of every time we sell another system, not only are we making money, which in turn helps us sell more systems, but we're also making a sustainability impact at the same time.
During the process of designing the Aeva and the Eve, were there any lessons you learned about what makes an effective hydroponics unit?
Yes, we learned a ton along the way. There were a lot of late nights trying to build these things. I like to say I barely knew how to use a drill before I started this company and ended up running a woodworking shop.
Yeah, lots learned along the way.
And I mean, specifically from a company point of view and the customer experience point of view, we found it was very important to try and delight customers in little ways and try and make them feel the magic of the system.
So for us, that's why we try to hide away as much as we can, the electrical and the pipes and everything. So with our system, it actually looks like these plants are just growing out of the walls of it and you can't see anything going on in the background. It seems like a little magic black box there.
What has consumer response to the Aeva and you've been like, and what are some of the things that your clients have particularly enjoyed about these two models?
Yeah, for sure. So as we've gone through it, we've used customer feedback to kind of guide some changes that we've made from the very first one we built, the ones we're building today, it's incredible the difference, the changes we've made.
At the end of the day, a lot of the customers, what they say is they love the plants, they're in it for the plants, and they love the form factor, the way it fits into their home. We've evolved from the plants being in the pot and the windowsil, too. I've seen one in somebody's basement, and they're like, it was dark, it was dreary down here. And being able to bring in this light and the greenery not only makes a difference to the decor, but to their day to day living. That really does spark joy in some people having those decorating those plants around.
You mentioned that you sell seeds along with the units. Do you think the fact that you sell seeds affects the growing experience?
Yeah, for sure. For us, it's all about lowering the barrier to entry. We want to make sure anybody can do this and we can answer all their questions for them. So you order a unit and it comes with a starter kit so you can figure out how it works, how to grow.
And from there, we really see people start to gain confidence in their ability to grow, and they start to kind of branch out, try new things. And we carry a lot of seeds that you can't get a lot of food you can't get at the grocery store. One of my favorites is wasabi Arugula. Looks like arugula, but you bite into it and it hits you with the flavor of wasabi. Really cool things like that, but people just have no idea exist.
Earlier this year you launched in the United States. How is your experience with that?
We just launched in the US this year.
It's been incredible to actually see us going from when we started. We just delivered locally within Toronto. It was me and Kevin delivering all these by hand in a truck to see that we're shipping across Canada and the US now has been incredible and really happy with the uptake there. And it's intimidating. It's a market ten times the size of Canada, so little different expectations down there, but it's been great and proud to say we've got Americans across the country now growing with our systems.
What's next for just vertical?
At the end of the day, our vision for this is we want everyone to be able to grow their own food at home. We know that just with Ava and Eve that's not possible.
So it's about rolling out design options that fit into everybody's homes.
It's about rolling out different pricing options units, some smaller units, cheaper units. We want to make this affordable and accessible to everyone. That goes back to us talking about cost being a big thing. How can we overcome that? Can we set it up so that people are growing and paying less than they would on their grocery bills, that they can start saving on their grocery bill from day one through payment plans? Our vision is getting as many people growing as possible.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about just vertical and our work. Follow us @justvertical on Twitter @justvertical on Instagram or visit our website www.justvertical.com. Stay tuned for the next episode where we will be discussing more about urban agriculture, food, sustainability or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about.