By Suzanne Forcese
Interview with Jovan Werbes software engineer for B.C. Start-up Canacompost Systems describing The Outpost
WT: Congratulations on advancing to the semi-finals in the Deep Space Food Challenge! What was there about the Challenge that inspired Canacompost to become involved?
Werbes: Our team has always been passionate about learning and being at the forefront of human advancement. Our fulfillment lies in our ability to grow as individuals as well as a team, and becoming more knowledgeable as part of this process is just the icing on the cake.
WT: Canacompost Systems is comprised of several recent graduates from UBC, BCIT, and SFU. The team has been developing experimental composting technology for a couple of years.
How did the team come together? What are the areas of expertise represented? Are you still looking for team members?
Werbes: We are a collection of former co-workers primarily in the field of software and we are always looking for interested team members to join us, particularly engineers and scientists, preferably mechanically inclined.
WT: The team posted on Canacompost’s Facebook page: “According to a recent United Nations report, 17% of the food produced on Earth is wasted every year.” Comment on the team’s mission.
Werbes: Our mission is to support remote communities and farms. By allowing these places to use their existing food waste to create a self-replenishing supply of livestock feed and healthy soil for plants we hope we can reduce the amount of ‘gastronomical sunk cost’ that goes into supporting our explorers and producers.
WT: Your technology uses black soldier flies. Please describe the technology. Why the black soldier fly larvae?
Werbes: Black soldier fly larvae are incredible at breaking down organic material and turning it into nutritionally complete plant compost. In the process, they themselves become nutrient-rich enough to feed fish, pigs, or chickens.
Because of them our system can take in waste and transform it into two renewable food outputs.
WT: What are the outputs?
Werbes: Healthy compost and black soldier fly larvae.
WT: How is waste used and “upcycled”?
Werbes: Waste gets converted into compost which can then be used to grow plants. That waste can be fed back into the system to self-replenish.
I would like to demonstrate our holistic automated composting system – which we call The Outpost-- and exactly how it works here
WT: How can these outputs complement other systems in space?
Werbes: Spaceships and the ISS have been growing plants for many years including Arabidopsis, Chinese cabbage, and kale so the ship itself can supplement the growth with our compost.
As for the larvae, if an outpost were stationed on Mars with a colony of chickens, given the system is given adequate input, this colony could be sustained exclusively on our output while the compost output can add nutrition to the planet’s barren soil.
WT: What stage are you currently at in the Challenge? What’s next?
Werbes: We are currently semi-finalists looking to win a finalist spot and hopefully the entire competition. We are one of the smaller teams competing against top universities and companies. This has been exciting and has also pushed us in ways we did not know were possible.
Our future is the growth of the team. We are looking to start tackling the commercialization of the Outpost as well as improving on our existing prototype to give ourselves the best possible odds of success.
WT: How do you envision your system working on a long-term space mission that could span 4 years? What sorts of duties will astronauts need to perform? Given that they will only have 3-4 hours per week to work on food production, how will your system make that easy?
Werbes: Our system is fully automated so once it is started the only interaction that should be required is regular check-ins on our panopticon dashboard.
WT: Do you have any sights on your technology being implemented on Earth? What would be the advantages?
Werbes: Remote communities could implement our systems to add to the efficiency of vertical farming and make it easier to produce food in locations where food transportation is expensive.
WT: Has the Challenge redefined your team’s purpose?
Werbes: The team has always been interested in Space and human advancement, so I do not know that the Challenge has redefined our purpose. Rather, it has solidified it. If we were not doing the DSFC we would all be doing something else related to bringing humanity to the next step of our technical and historical evolution.
WT: What message would you like to leave with our viewers regarding innovation?
Werbes: Passion and dedication are the only two requirements for innovation. If something is important to you—do it. It is never too late to start.