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Hydroponic farming startup Just Vertical cultivates growth at home

The indoor growing industry is starting to scale. Farms that utilize hydroponics and traditional greenhouses have started to become integral parts of our food supply chain.

The indoor growing industry is starting to scale. Farms that utilize hydroponics (grow produce without soil, usually in large warehouses) and traditional greenhouses have started to become integral parts of our food supply chain, mainly for leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and arugula.   

Vertical hydroponic farming is often seen as a sustainable alternative to traditional growing. It uses 95% less water, has less impact on soil and the urban farms can be placed in food deserts or close to grocers to cut down on transportation costs. But the high-energy usage for lighting the indoor farms has often thwarted cutting down on carbon emissions from agriculture.  

Industry leader AeroFarms announced it’s going public sometime this year. Plenty, the SF-based vertical farm company, expanded into 17 Safeways across Northern California. Gotham Greens, the East Coast urban farming business, is pushing past the COVID-19 recession and building indoor farms in geographies like Colorado and California. Overall, the global vertical farming market is expected to reach 5.8 billion by 2026, a compound annual growth rate of 14%. 

But Canadian-based startup Just Vertical is working to add home gardeners to the indoor growing movement. Its two products, the Aeva and the Eve, are marketed as elegant pieces of furniture that can grow between eight and 10 pounds of food a month using hydroponic technology. 

The products use a wooden cabinet as the base, and the growing mechanism extends upward about five feet. The Aeva and the Eve can grow leafy greens, zucchini, strawberries, herbs, peppers and cucumbers. The company is currently expanding into flowers and it even grew hops for microbreweries. Beyond selling the hardware, Just Vertical offers a subscription model for its seeds and peat moss pods. 

“It’s meant for anyone that can’t grow either all year round or doesn’t have the capability without a backyard or a balcony,” co-founder Kevin Jakiela said. “We didn’t want to be just another countertop version.”

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Those countertop competitors include Click and Grow and Aerogardens, which are mainly used for herbs. But larger competitors do exist, like Tower Garden and ZipGrow. But Just Vertical is trying to be both décor and garden in a way these other versions are not. 

According to Jakiela, the company’s biggest markets are condos and homes, followed by restaurants, schools, cafes and bars. The company is also picking up interest in office space as décor rather than just truly food-focused.

“I want to be an amenity in condominiums or houses — part of the pre-builds. Kind of like where you could choose your type of dishwasher and washing machine — we want to be the next microwave equivalent,” Jakiela said. “Also get into large retailers like IKEA.”

The company has sold 1,500 units and has seed investment from District Ventures, the fund from Arlene Dickinson (a “shark” on Canada’s version of Shark Tank called Dragon’s Den). The company is currently aiming for a Series A this September. 

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Just Vertical’s high price point, between $600 and $1,000, makes it unlikely it will really make a difference for families that struggle with food security or even a huge impact on environmental concerns. 

Jakiela acknowledged that right now the target consumer is “a Whole Foods shopper.” But the website still touts data citing the environmental benefits of the products, including more than 112,000,000 miles of food transport saved and over 2,000,000 liters of water saved due to people growing their own food. But Jakiela hopes that, as the company scales, it can really start to make a social and business impact.

“I want to be able to go away from the hobbyist and go for more impact,” he said. “Like a restaurant where they can truly offset some of their costs by using an Aeva, we want to be more front-facing in grocery stores. Build out our retail and distributed network, targeting the social piece of things.”

Just Vertical decided that starting on the high-end consumer side would help them prove market fit and be able to go to grocery stores with proven success to really make an impact. 

“It’s very difficult, especially as a startup, to go knocking on any grocery store’s door and say ‘hey, we have an idea for you,” he said. “They say ‘get out of here, come back with sales, come back with validation’ or you’re in a loop of an eight to 12-month process with no guarantees. There’s a lot of hoops to go through. [Grocers] don’t want to be first. But they don’t want to be last at the same time.”

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