Kevin Jakiela considers himself a “banana morning guy.”
“Every single day, no matter where I am, I love a good banana and a cup of coffee. That’s a must every morning for me.”
But when Jakiela was just out of university and teaching math and science to children in an isolated Arctic community, his go-to breakfast choice was a rare and expensive commodity.
“Food prices generally are four to five times more (in the Far North),” says the Kitchener native. “Bananas were very few to come by, and when they did come, they were all brown and mushy and anywhere from $1 to $2 per banana.”
The experience fuelled Jakiela’s interest in food security and the challenge of growing fresh vegetables in inhospitable and urban environments.
Fast forward a few years and Jakiela is now President and co-founder of a promising tech-for-good startup called Just Vertical. The company designs and manufactures “furniture that feeds you” – stylish hydroponic grow systems for condos, houses, schools, restaurants and other indoor settings.
The company’s flagship product, the AEVA, can grow more than 200 different plants, from flowers and herbs to lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and more. It can also produce up to 10 pounds of food per month.
The AEVA is five feet, 10 inches tall, three feet wide and nine inches deep. A vertical row of small wells, or pockets, run down the inward-facing sides of the frame-like structure. Seed pods are inserted into each well, and the plants are nurtured by an automated LED lighting and watering system. There’s no soil to muck around with and the watering gear is hidden from view in a small cabinet.
The AEVA sells for $1,199. The smaller EVE version is priced at $699. Since launching in 2017, Just Vertical has sold more than 1,500 units.
Jakiela and co-founder Conner Tidd, Just Vertical’s CEO, came up with the concept while earning their master’s degrees in sustainability management at the University of Toronto. One day over lunch they were discussing their work terms – Jakiela doing research in the Northwest Territories and Tidd working for a large agriculture company – and the conversation turned to the many challenges in the global food industry.
“We were saying, ‘Oh, you know, the food system is broken.’ And I'm like, ‘There's some cool technologies we could leverage for that.’”
The two grad students turned their idea for an indoor hydroponic grow system into a capstone project. Then, with the encouragement of a professor who also gifted them $5,000 to get started, they began developing the business plan.
“Food security issues exist everywhere around the world,” says Jakiela. “(Our business concept) really comes down to, Can we make something that anyone can use, at any time, no matter where they are in the world, to grow themselves food, to educate their families on the importance of plants and on food transport?”
The impact of climate change – rising temperatures, droughts and wildfires – has prompted food-security experts to highlight the growing need for innovative approaches to food cultivation, such as the “vertical farming” concept at the heart of Just Vertical’s products.
Jakiela and Tidd have attracted a fair bit of interest from investors. Beginning with $650,000 raised through several rounds of angel investment, they worked with a Toronto engineering firm to develop prototypes and secure component manufacturing in China. The parts were shipped to London, Ont., where Just Vertical established a small assembly and shipping operation.
The two fledgling founders also auditioned for the Dragons’ Den television show. They didn’t make it to the screen, says Jakiela, but they did impress dragon investor Arlene Dickinson, a Managing Partner in Calgary-based District Ventures Capital. Together with PAX Angels of Washington, D.C., District Ventures participated in a $625,000 seed round earlier this year, according to Just Vertical.
A Series A investment is also in the works, says Jakiela.
The recent seed raise will be used to grow the company’s assembly operations and move them to Toronto, as well as to boost marketing, especially in the U.S., says Jakiela.
“It’s a total growth and marketing usage of money,” he says, explaining that the company – which employs seven people – couldn’t meet demand with its small London assembly operation.
Although Just Vertical’s focus is on the consumer and restaurant markets, Jakiela says they have tackled custom hydroponic systems on a larger scale, such as warehouse farms. They have also developed educational plans for schools regarding food issues and hydroponics.
Just Vertical is also enhancing its technology. It hopes to add an internet-of-things (IoT) app in future to allow users to monitor their plants from a distance.
Jakiela, who did his undergrad in chemistry and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, credits the help he and Tidd received from a number of incubators and startup programs, including the U of T’s Impact Centre and ICUBE program for social entrepreneurship, as well as Communitech and others.
“People always ask me, ‘How do I get started? Where can I get some advice?’” he says. “I think for sure it's the community around you. We’ve been part of a few accelerators and incubators, including Communitech, that have been very valuable.”
So, can the Just Vertical units grow bananas for Jakiela’s breakfast?
Not yet, he laughs, but maybe down the road.