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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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Update 2023/1/24
Space Food

brought to you in part by

Noah Nomad

Vancouver Team CANGrow moves on to semi-finals in the Canadian Space Agency’s Deep Space Food Challenge

North Vancouver company, Ecoation Innovative Systems, develops food technology for long-term space missions.

By Suzanne Forcese

“Food is a critical component of all human space exploration missions, but even more so for future missions to the Moon and Mars. As space missions increase in duration and extend further away from Earth there is a need to reduce the resupply of food from Earth while at the same time providing astronauts enjoyable, nutritious foods, to ensure they remain at their physical and psychological best.”

-- impact Canada

The Canada Space Agency has recently announced the 10 semifinalists of the

Interview with team leader, Gavin Schneider, of Ecoation’s CANGrow System.

WT: NASA and the Canadian Space Agency put out a call for innovative food systems that maximize safe and nutritious food outputs to help support long-term space missions. Ecoation Innovative Solutions’ CANGrow Systems answered that call.

Congratulations on being selected as one of the 10 semi-finalists of the Deep Space Food Challenge!

What gave your Team the courage and certainty to be able to answer that call? How does a forecasting platform for greenhouses make the leap to Space Missions?

Schneider: Food security through technology is at the heart of all the team members who built the CANGrow System over the past two years.

Whether on Earth or off Earth, humans need to grow food to survive.

As a team built of engineers, agronomists, and technologists we combined our skillset to tackle one of the most challenging endeavours humanity has ever attempted – feeding ourselves as we venture into deep space.

Ecoation had advanced technology used in greenhouse production that we repurposed for this project, so it was a massive leap for the team.

WT: Tell us about your team. When did your start-up form? There is a lot of talent on the team from research scientists, and clean-tech experts, to robotics experts. You are an ag technologist with experience in plant phenotyping and plant tissue culture. What brought the team together? What is your mission?

Schneider: I am a farmer at heart. Together with Steve Humpston, a designer, we completed the original design for the CANGrow after driving across Canada to set up a new Ecoation office in Southern Ontario in April 2021.

We submitted our drawings and calculations and ended up winning in the top 10 out of over 70 applicants.

After we won, we added three more engineers from ecoation to the team – Chris Okrainetz, Bruno Pena, and Matthew Cox. With this depth of skillset, we were able to bring the idea from drawing to tomato.

The original concept ended up inspiring me to form another company – Kinoko Farm Corp – to commercialize the incredible potential of mycelium production along with a team of two scientists (Ashton Ostrander and Sean Lacoursiere) who also contributed to the CANGrow project.

All this work was completed as volunteers outside of regular work hours, which is ultimately a testament to the team’s desire to build this system.

Our mission was to find a way to grow the equivalent biomass of a cow in space.

WT: Before we get into your plans to feed astronauts on long-term space missions, describe for our viewers what your platform is here on planet Earth. Who are your customers?

Schneider: Ecoation is the only available greenhouse forecasting platform available today.

We help modern greenhouses use a technology platform to digitize their integrated pest management program and use machine vision to count fruit and forecast yield.

Using a hardware platform with a built-in AI platform, we help growers reduce pesticide use, reduce product costs, and bring certainty to their yield.

We work with greenhouses all over the world, with offices in BC, Ontario, Mexico, and Belgium through our partner Biobest.

Our customer base of over 30 unique greenhouses covers 5000 acres of controlled environment agriculture. We work with advanced greenhouses that produce tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries.

Our technology can be found in Canada, the USA, Mexico, Belgium, Germany, Czechia, Italy, Japan, France, and Croatia.

WT: What is CANGrow? Please describe the technology. How far along are you in the development of this system and what sorts of food can you produce?

Schneider: CANGow is a polyculture indoor food production system designed to produce a variety of food that is easy to grow, nutritious, and digestible.

The entire system is less than 2 cubic meters (about twice the volume of a large refrigerator) and comes with a complete climate control system, automated watering, and autonomous data collection with a live view from anywhere on Earth using different sensor cameras.

The CANGrow comes with a fully integrated digital dashboard to control the systems remotely and monitor plant health.

We have built a fully functional prototype in our North Vancouver office space where we have successfully produced and tasted all the candidate food species.

The CANGrow is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, minimizing labour, cleaning, and inputs while maximizing caloric density and food desirability.

While there are other technologies for “micro plant factory with artificial light”, this is the first system that has combined so many different food outputs under a single system.

WT: How do you envision this system operating in space?

Schneider: The challenge was to build a system that met certain constraints around size, water use, power use, and operational time.

The use case for CANGrow is to produce food on future Moon or Mars missions, not while in transit to these destinations.

The current version of the CANGrow has been built to operate under Earth gravity conditions, but we have designs for a future system that can water a root zone in low gravity conditions.

We chose to use a greenhouse polycarbonate system to utilize any potential light sources for photosynthesis to not rely solely on artificial light.

WT: Now let us come back to Earth...where much of the planet is exposed to harsh conditions and food sustainability is a growing concern. Can this technology serve populations in remote areas or areas that have been devastated by violent climate events? Are any plans on your radar moving forward?

Schneider: While the goal of the challenge is to generate a system to feed astronauts, the real application is on Earth.

There are numerous ways the technology we have built can benefit remote communities and those in disaster areas, or even just create more local food autonomy in your own garage.

The system allows anyone to produce nearly any crop, anywhere, in any season.

The most challenging aspect of any outdoor food production system is growing strong young plants, and this system can be used to easily grow thousands of plants in a small space.

Kinoko plans to commercialize mycelium technology and set up protein bioreactors across North America to produce a high-protein texturized food product.

WT: What’s next on the Deep Space Food Challenge? And after?

Schneider: The DSFC team is visiting the 10 finalists 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 funding to build version 2 of their prototype.

A final winner of the challenge will be announced in the spring of 2024 for a cash prize.

Regardless of the results in the next phase, Ecoation and the team who built CANGrow will continue to help farmers grow more food.

With both Ecoation and now Kinoko we are building some of the most advanced tools to help grow nutritious food indoors.

Farming on Earth is challenging work, but farming in space is going to be infinitely more challenging. I am honoured that the DSFC chose our team to demonstrate our capabilities to solve a really difficult problem.

WT: How is this revolutionary experience of the Deep Space Food Challenge defining who you are personally and what it means to the Ecoation team?

Schneider: This challenge for me personally, has been the culmination of a lifelong fascination with food production and space.

In 2015, I published a poem, Astronaut Farmer so it is very satisfying to be able to get one step closer to that title.

Coming from the Star Trek town of Vulcan, Alberta, my childhood hero was Spock. I have brought that fascination with space exploration with me throughout my career.

At Ecoation we are a team of realistic dreamers who make seemingly impossible technology come true. If you work here, you want to make the world a better place through food.


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