How a group of scientists and engineers spend their free time building food technology for extraterrestrial applications.
North Vancouver, British Columbia (Tuesday, January 31, 2023) - The ecoation team was proud to host a four member judging panel from the Canadian Space Agency at the ecoation headquarters in North Vancouver on January 19, 2023. The visit was part of the assessment and evaluation process of CANGrow - a polyculture food production system developed by a handpicked group of ecoation engineers and scientists. CANGrow has been selected as a top ten finalist for the Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC) funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA).
CANGrow is a polyculture indoor food production system designed to simplify the growth of highly nutritious, and easily digestible crops. The whole system is less than 2 cubic metres and comes with a climate control system, automated watering, and autonomous data collection with a live view from anywhere - on or off Earth. A fully integrated digital dashboard controls the systems remotely and monitors plant health. With the prize winnings from Phase 1 of the challenge, the team built a fully functional prototype in North Vancouver. To date, the system has been used to grow dwarf tomatoes, strawberries, leafy greens, microgreens, micro root vegetables, herbs, an algae superfood, and most interestingly - mycelium as a protein source. The CANGrow is designed to be as user friendly as possible, minimising labour, cleaning, and inputs while maximising caloric density and food desirability.
The DSFC required teams to build a system that met constraints around size, water use, power use, and operational time. The use case for the CANGrow is to produce food on a future Moon or Mars mission, not while in transit to these distant destinations. While the current version of the CANGrow has been built to operate under Earth gravity conditions, the team has designs for a future system that can water a root zone in low gravity as well. The CANGrow uses traditional greenhouse polycarbonate to maximise photosynthesis and not rely solely on artificial light.
Gavin Schneider demonstrating the workings of the CANGrow system
“Food security through technology is at the heart of all the team members who built the CANGrow system over the last two years. Whether on Earth or off Earth, humans need to grow food to survive,” says Gavin Schneider, VP Agronomy & Customer Success at ecoation and one of the members of the CANGrow team. “A group of engineers, agronomists, and scientists combined their skill sets to tackle one of the most challenging endeavours humanity has ever attempted - feeding astronauts as humanity ventures into deep space.”
Gavin Schneider, a farmer, and Steve Humpston, a designer, led the project and completed the original design for the CANGrow in April 2021. Their design ended up winning top 10 out of over 70 applicants. After the announcement, three more engineers from ecoation joined the team - Chris Okrainetz, Bruno Pena, and Matthew Cox.
From left to right: Steve Humpston, Gavin Schneider, Bruno Pena, Matthew Cox (phone) and Chris Okrainetz.
The original concept resulted in a spin-out company - Kinoko Farm Corp. - whose mission is to commercialise the incredible potential of mycelium production. Two of the company's scientists - Ashton Ostrander and Sean Lacoursiere - contributed their knowledge of mycelium fermentation to the CANGrow project. The team for this project consisted entirely of volunteers, which is a testament to their desire to build advanced technology that can contribute to food security.
“ecoation is a multidimensional company that fuses robotic hardware, AI powered software, and professional horticulturalists to provide a data digitization service to modern greenhouses,” says Saber Miresmailli, the founder and CEO of ecoation. “We provide the only commercially available greenhouse IPM and yield forecasting platform, serving the largest tomato, pepper, cucumber, and strawberry greenhouses in the world. With a deep skillset in engineering, data analytics, and controlled environment agriculture, the company had the necessary expertise to develop the CANGrow.”
While the goal of the challenge is to generate a system to feed astronauts, there are real applications for this technology on Earth as well. The technology built can benefit remote communities and those in disaster areas, as well as creating more local food autonomy in individual households. The system allows someone to produce nearly any crop, anywhere, any season. The most challenging aspect of any outdoor food production system is growing strong young plants, and the system can be used to easily grow thousands of plants in a small space to transplant into a garden. Kinoko also plans to commercialise its mycelium technology and set up protein bioreactors across North America to produce a high protein texturized food product.
Inside view of the CANGrow system showcasing various tomato plants
The judging panel from the DSFC team is visiting the 10 finalists across Canada and assessing their technology. After a final report, they will announce the winners for the next phase of the project in April 2023. They will choose 4 winners who will then receive $100,000 to build a version 2 of their prototype. A final winner of the challenge will be announced in spring 2024 for a $380,000 cash prize.
Regardless of the results in the next phase, ecoation and the team behind CANGrow will continue to help farmers grow more food on and off planet Earth.
ecoation is an award-winning grower-centric platform that combines Human knowledge and experience with Machine precision and automation to increase operational visibility, assist growers, and enhance their decisions. Commercially available since September 2019, ecoation products can be found in greenhouses across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. With an experienced team of 60+ growers, scientists, engineers, and business professionals from all over the globe, ecoation is passionate about enabling a cleaner future and supporting growers in making the best possible decisions. At ecoation, we are on a mission to empower growers because we believe in doing so, we win together. More information at ecoation.com. Find ecoation on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.