Welcome back to our Founder Spotlight Series interviews, where we share insights, experiences, and advice from some of our client founders. In this edition, we learned about the connection between sustainable farming and the Circular Economic Doctrine from Brent Downey, founder, and CEO of Urban Stalk.
Food insecurity continues to be an increasingly growing issue for people across Canada. According to Food Banks Canada's HungerCount 2022 report, there has been a 35% increase in the use of food banks between 2019 and 2022. Many see that percentage growing with rising food prices and a potential global recession on the horizon.
Scaling the global food supply continues to have its own set of challenges. Usable farmland is often converted to residential land for growing populations—the same populations that need access to healthy food. There is also increasing awareness of the climate impacts of traditional farming, especially from crops like avocados and almonds and animals like cows and pigs.
Urban Stalk is taking a radically different approach to farming inspired by founder and CEO Brent Downey's time studying in Canada, France, and South Korea. Downey's focus was on the doctrine of Circular Economics—by using the outputs of a product or service as inputs in a new product or service, you can extend the useful life of the original input.
In the case of Urban Stalk, they have designed FOSESUS Pods, an innovative growing system that enhances the natural resource input of existing hydroponic systems. Downey said their process could reduce water consumption by up to 80% while eliminating harmful chemicals such as insecticides and pesticides from the natural environment.
While that alone is impressive, Urban Stalk's modular indoor systems mean the crop-growing cycle doesn't need to depend on changing weather patterns or conditions. Instead, the units can be placed in any urban environment, making farm-to-table a reality for more consumers.
Downey found inspiration for Urban Stalk while writing a dissertation looking at how circular economics could rejuvenate environmental sustainability but still allow for continued industrialization and growth.
"Fast forward 16 countries and two and a half years later of studying circular economics and it quickly became clear that agriculture globally was becoming transformative and deploying circular principles. Everywhere in the world is thinking, how are we changing the way we're growing food, where are we growing food, and how much equitable access to food really do we have," Downey said.
Globally, many nations are starting to set ambitious crop production goals to meet their growing populations. China has a goal that 10% of the food consumed in China be grown there. Singapore has a 30 by 30 plan, where Singaporeans will consume 30% of all produce items grown in Singapore by 2030. Downey said that nations like Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the Nordic countries are also on paths to becoming self-sufficient in food production.
"We need to think about this differently for the future. Canada and the United States are falling behind on those innovations because we're not facing the same climate or population issues. But at the same time, Canada and the United States also face a lot of the same social problems as the rest of the world where we do have food-insecure populations. 50 million people in North America are considered either food deficit or food insecure," Downey said.
Urban Stalk can address many of these food insecurity issues by scaling the production of consistent, healthy produce regardless of where the Urban Stalk unit is located. Each unit can be easily configured to produce a crop, from kale to cabbage, that has the same nutritional value and uses the same inputs as a Pod located across the country.
"We'll be able to use our smartphones to click and drag 'kale' onto Pod 100 which will completely optimize and control that environment for kale. It can take that plant from seed to harvest in a completely autonomous way without human intervention, and it will be able to grow the same quality of food with the same resourcing of food over and over again," Downey said.
As a hardware startup focused on food production, Downey said that being part of the Accelerator Centre has been instrumental in helping Urban Stalk with funding, product development, marketing, and more. Urban Stalk has received nearly $80,000 worth of government funding for developing its technology.
"I know it might not sound like a lot of money, but for a startup in an innovative ecosystem to get federal and provincial dollars to be put towards your idea, that's a huge feat. Governments are starting to recognize that's maybe something that we're going to want to invest in or look at sooner rather than later," Downey said.
For mentorship, Downey said that product management mentor Don Thompson helped refine Urban Stalk's economic and business modeling. He said Thompson helped them think about scale and the strategic direction of their partnerships as they were developing the product.
"Don always uses the crawl, walk, run model. When we first kind of entered the Accelerator Centre, we had all the things we wanted to do. He said, 'That's great, but we need to focus down first.' That's what we're really starting to see happening—that crawl and that slow, snowballing effect. He has been really pivotal in building a lot of those models and systems and thought processes for us," Downey said.
Many people can see farming as an industry that needs to catch up in innovation, even with the farmers being some of the earliest adopters of technologies like satellite GPS and autonomous vehicles. But even with those technologies, Canadian farms are still restricted to short growing seasons and increasing demands on natural resources. These are the two problems that Urban Stalk hopes to solve.
"There's a lot of reasons why the industry is not moving in a certain alternative way. For us right now, we're at the right time and place where we're really seeing this pain point starting to become unsustainable," Downey said. "Climate change is forcing us to start thinking about things differently for the future. We may not see it right in the short term, but we're already seeing it now in our grocery stores and in our wallets. In a sense, we're now seeing that this is the right time to bring those innovations to market."