Agriolabs: Sprouting up in Edmonton
AgrioLabs is a first for About Alberta Tech, as this startup isn’t focused on the code and programming side of technology, but on design and 3D printing. When Jonathan Mui, founder of AgrioLabs reached out to share his story about launching a modular home garden system, I wondered what would lead a young entrepreneur to focus in on microgreens.
Let’s explore his story.
Jonathan grew up in a home where food waste was against the rules, as his mother grew up in China during the cultural revolution. As a result, when he moved out and was on his own, he found himself eating poorly and wasting food and took a hard look at his choices. It didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to make a change. As a big fan of OEB (an Albertan restaurant that focuses on local, sustainable and healthy breakfasts) he noticed that they grew microgreens and wondered if that was something he could incorporate into his kitchen.
After a bit of research and learning how healthy microgreens are (up to 50x the nutritional density of full grown veggies), he decided to give it a try. However, he lived in a small basement suite and wasn’t exactly an experienced gardener. His first attempt was jerry rigged to be like existing systems on the market and he told me that the greens died due to dehydration, but I suspect you could safely label it plant murder. He also found that in a small kitchen the system just took up too much space.
As a recent grad from NAIT from the Digital Media and IT program, with a focus on user experience, this drove him a bit crazy. How could the system be simpler and easier to use? Take up less space?
Having been a tinkerer as he was growing up, he decided to take a stab at building his own microgreen system, now simply named Micro. He started with a simple 3D printed box, and a halo light, and it grew, albeit with the microgreens growing in the shape of the halo light.
From an engineering and innovation standpoint, this is really when Agriolabs started having to think about prototypes. Jonathan had a hefty list of requirements: a modular system that could go anywhere (cupboard, countertop, table), enclosed (to limit what could get on the plants), the ability to go vertical (for multiple green varieties), a reduced need for water and maintenance, limited risk of mold or mildew, easy to clean, sustainable, local…
With 3D printing, Jonathan and his team were able to design a system using bioplastics. This means that it works in your house as long as you want it, but should you throw it away, it biodegrades in 3-5 years. With a focus on simple and easy to use, the team built a power plate that can power multiple units in a vertical stack. For lighting, after multiple tries, they were able to incorporate lighting that allows the full box to grow, thanks to 3D printing. For airflow and venting, the team incorporated a fan (which also reduces light heat) and venting that reduces the risk of mold and mildew. As for cleaning… only the water reservoir and the seed plate have to be washed.
For the seeds, Agriolabs uses hemp fibre sourced from Dayton Valley for a seed pad with organic local seeds (arugula, broccoli, radish and more) sourced from BC or Ontario, which meets his local requirement and Canadian requirements.
It is as simple as inserting and watering the seed pad, pressing a button to turn the system on, and in 7-10 days you can harvest your own microgreens.
His team is now moving out of the prototype stage and into startup, having launched their first Kickstarter, which hit their first goal in 20 hours! The Kickstarter is going to help them ramp up their production capability by funding additional 3D printer tools.
In speaking with Jonathan, the next step is to truly productionalize Micro and start selling their units. He can see ways to add in additional automation and streamline the user experience. He has bigger plans (literally) once they have their modular microgreens system out, as he wants to investigate a macro option that would let you grow veggies or berries at home.
As to why Edmonton and Alberta? Raised here, educated here, Jonathan is looking to give back to the community that has given his family so much opportunity. It’s a key part of his plan in fact, to source local, to build jobs here and to be involved in the tech and start up ecosystem.
Interested in how Micro works? Check out their YouTube video:
And if you want to learn more about Jonathan and AgrioLabs, check out our full interview: