UOIT students hungry for change in food

A company started by a pair of nuclear engineering students at UOIT is one of the start-ups to watch in 2016, according to the Spark Centre for Innovation in Durham. The pair wants to wants to help bring agriculture into cities and urban centres, and they believe they have the system to do just that.

For most residents of Durham and the GTA, getting fresh fruit and vegetables is as simple as going to the nearest grocery store or farmers’ market. 

In remote communities, however, access to fresh food can be difficult and costly. High transportation costs make everyday staples expensive. The Nunavut Bureau of Statistics reports that in March 2015, the average price for 1kg of carrots in Canada was $1.98. For Nunavut, the price was $6.17.

A falling loonie makes the price of imported produce unpredictable and residents in Canada’s urban centres are starting to feel the same pinch that residents in small, northern communities feel everyday.

Michael Veneziano and Timothy Sarvendran are the founders of Turnkey Aquaponic Solutions. It’s a company the pair started as a business pitch project for the Spark Centre’s Ignite Durham Start Up pitch competition, which they won in the student category.

“A lot of our groceries are imported from places worldwide,” Sarvendran said. “We think that aquaponic technology can help to grow food in our cities and reduce the footprint of agriculture.”

Turnkey has built a fully functional growing system with a something called a “Combined Power and Heat Generator” (CPH) that has a special bio-digester and turbine that generate electricity to run lights and create heat.

It’s a fully self-sufficient system that can grow almost anything, anywhere. Here’s how it works.

  • Aquaponic systems grow plants in water with no soil. This water is fertilized using naturally occurring bacteria cultures and waste produced by fish. The bacteria convert the fish waste into nitrites, a critical ingredient in farm fertilizer.
  • This fertilized water is then pumped into growing beds where the roots of plants pull nutrients directly from the water, more efficiently than in soil. The water then goes back into the system and fish tanks to begin the cycle again.
  • It’s a closed loop system that uses less than 10 per cent of the water required by traditional agriculture, making farming faster, cheaper, easier on the environment and more accessible in remote communities.

Veneziano explained that their business isn’t centered on growing plants primarily, “We’re looking at how does our system fit into the larger ecosystem of agriculture,” he said.

Once operational, Turnkey will be one of only a handful of aquaponic systems in Ontario. As of 2016, just one other company markets aquaponically grown food in the GTA.

Aqua Greens is Ontario’s largest commercial aquaponic system. They grow produce at a facility near Pearson Airport to sell to restaurants and caterers, and at farmers markets like Wychwood Barns in Toronto. For co-owners Craig Petten and Pablo Alvarez, getting into the food business was not without its challenges.

While Petten and Alvarez say that municipalities across the GTA have expressed interest and encouragement in the project, getting certified as an approved “farm” was met with mountains of paperwork. But, after starting in 2013 and a successful kickstarter campaign in 2014, they plan to expand Aqua Greens later this year.

“We want to be socially oriented.” Alvarez said. “How do we feed our communities? How do we increase the economic benefit [of growing] greens for our cities?” Aqua Greens hope to help address these questions as food security becomes a bigger issue.

For the time being, Veneziano and Sarvendran split their focus between Turnkey and their nuclear engineering studies at UOIT. But, they hope to have a system ready to market by next year.