Choosing a career, or even an educational path to embark on, is one of life’s big, pressure-cooking, stress-inducing hurdles we all have to jump at least once in our lifetime. Add to that the influences of pop culture and social media, and you have a quest even the likes of Tommy Caldwell (a climber and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year) wouldn’t want to grapple. When Oprah tells you to pursue your passion and find your work related “aha” moment and the stars on instagram make it look so doable, albeit a craftily edited doable, it’s no wonder so many young people feel lost, insufficient or confused. And just when you start to feel the future is hopeless, it happens: you meet someone who is none of those things. They are making life look doable, maybe not as glamorously doable as the Kardashians or Gwyneth Paltrow, but doable. Perhaps most shocking of all, is that they’ve experienced the coveted, oft sought-after “aha” moment, and actually done something with it. This may seem uncommon, or feel like one of those stories about someone who knows someone who knows someone, etc., but if you live in Burnaby, Surrey, or Vancouver, B.C., it’s probably become a more frequent phenomenon for you in the last seven years.

Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s Innovation Office launched Venture Connection in 2008 to provide entrepreneurship training and opportunities for students and alumni. The free program is run across all three campuses and works in collaboration with SFU departments and faculties, government partners, and community members. SFU’s Venture Connection webpage combines inspiring words like motivate, passion, and dedication with more technical words like tools and training when describing how they strive to help students “turn ideas into real ventures.” One such “real venture” garnering a lot of attention as of late, is Ethan O’Brien’s Living Gardens Foods, the idea of which came about from the impact California’s drought is having on the supply and cost of fruits and vegetables in British Columbia.

While attending SFU’s Sustainable Community Development Program, O’Brien realized that Canada’s “food production practices are out-dated, unsustainable and increasingly volatile with the coming climate changes, such as the current California drought.” Because B.C. imports more than 67% of their fruits and vegetables (at least half of which comes from California), they have experienced a drastic hike in the price of certain produce such as strawberries, broccoli and lettuce in correlation with the impact the drought has had on yields. While many of these crops used to be grown locally, and there is an upswing in local field farming, the solution is not as simple as relying on local farms to fill the void since local farmers cannot produce year round, and would not be able to yield enough to compensate for the loss of imported produce.

These are the details O’Brien aimed to rectify when coming up with a solution to what he felt was an inevitable food shortage. His Living Gardens combine two ideas to produce environmentally sustainable food 365 days a year while drastically reducing the amount of typical industry waste. Using aquaponics (where the waste from farmed fish and other aquatic animals supplies nutrients to hydroponically grown plants, which then purify the water) and five-foot-tall towers, O’Brien developed a self-sustaining ecosystem that he says uses 90% less water and 90% less land than established farming practices while eliminating the typical runoff from fertilizers and pesticides. When the plants clean the water, they are absorbing natural nitrates which enable growing rates two to three times faster than the traditional methods of fertilization for field crops. With an initial focus on herbs, the gardens are averaging a yield of 3.25lbs ten times per year per tower—a drastic improvement to the one to three harvests per year (depending on the crop) produced by current agriculture methods. Designed to be space and cost efficient, the vertical towers can be installed anywhere there’s a roof and power supply, even the grocery store. The Living Garden Foods website states that the plants stay alive for 30 days, which means consumers would reap the benefits of full nutrition, taste and freshness.

So while you look forward to increasing your choices to eat more locally as Living Gardens grows (wink, wink), you can also look forward to the fruition of more “aha” moments from SFU’s other entrepreneurial hopefuls; personally, Mission staff can’t wait to see what new innovations sprout up next!

About The Author

John Keirstead
John Keirstead
Serial Entrepreneur, Technologist and Inventor.
My objective is to develop useful products that have a net positive effect in the lives of those that use them and the environment that we live in.
CEO of Mission LED Lighting Company Ltd.

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