University of Toronto startup Just Vertical created a hydroponic garden that allows us to access fresh vegetables easily and affordably, no matter where we live.

The idea for U of T’s urban farming startup Just Vertical germinated in a classroom.

Co-founders Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela were master’s students at the University of Toronto, studying sustainability management, when they discovered they shared an interest—they were both fascinated with hyper-local, sustainable agriculture.

Tidd had just interned in corporate public affairs, experiencing first-hand the public’s mistrust of agri-business. “I told Kevin, ‘People in cities say they want to grow their own food, but they can’t because they live in a concrete jungle,’” he recalls.

Jakiela, meanwhile, had worked in the Canadian Arctic, learning how to grow vegetables hydroponically in geodesic greenhouses. “And he said ‘you know what, the technology exists, but no one’s leveraged it properly in an urban setting.’”

“An urban farming device that allows just about anyone to grow vegetables indoors”

The two teamed up, and started looking for a solution—an urban farming device that would allow just about anyone to grow vegetables indoors. “What we quickly discovered is that when you’re putting something into somebody’s condo, they’d rather it look nice,” says Tidd.

So they designed a beautiful stand-alone wall unit—and at the same time perfected the technology of growing farm-fresh food just steps from the kitchen table. The real beauty is that the unit works just as well in a home in the Arctic as in an urban condo.

“Our bread and butter is the residential business, making urban farming possible for anybody,” says Tidd. “But the passion piece for us is the environment and food security.”

That passion also includes bringing the joy of gardening to people who desperately need it. “Older people are saying, ‘I used to garden all the time, it was my passion, but now I can’t because I’m in a retirement home.’ Or, ‘my body doesn’t allow me to bend over anymore,’” Tidd says. “Our system allows them to continue doing what they love.”

Just Vertical grew from a U of T incubator idea to an international company with strong sales

Today, Just Vertical is a viable company with strong international sales and growing revenue. The counters on their website have ticked over to north of 25,000 pounds of produce grown, saving more than two million litres of water. When the COVID-19 lockdowns hit in 2020, they responded by creating a free lesson plan on indoor gardening for children at home, which included an offer of free lettuce seeds. It was the perfect demonstration of Tidd and Jakiela’s vision of making gardening accessible to more homes.

Without U of T’s entrepreneurship network, Tidd and Jakiela’s idea might have stayed in the lab. “We started working on it as a purely academic exercise,” says Tidd, “and then our course co-ordinator encouraged us to join our first incubator, the ICUBE at U of T Mississauga.” From there, they moved on to U of T’s Impact Centre, another entrepreneurial hub that works with startups in the natural sciences and engineering.

“They helped us plot out how we can turn our scientific know-how into a business,” says Tidd. “U of T took us and turned us from scientists into entrepreneurs.”

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