Partnership Between Ecoation and Maia Farms Win Deep Space Food Challenge

CANGrow, a collaboration between Ecoation and Maia Farms wins the Deep Space Food Challenge. Image credit: Ecoation.

Two Canadian companies, Ecoation and Maia Farms, won the Canadian Deep Space Food Challenge $380,000 grand prize today (April 10). The competition was co-hosted by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency/Impact Canada, with separate runoffs for each country.

The companies have been working for four years on a food production system, CANGrow, and a mycelium protein ingredient called CanPro. CANGrow is designed to create 700 kg of food each year from a wardrobe-science unit that can deploy in remote areas, with crops including lettuce, strawberries and dwarf tomatoes. CanPro derives its ingredients from mushrooms.

CANGrow includes five grow chambers. Four are devoted to plant growth that have adjustable LED lights, and a ultraviolet-treated hydroponic system for watering the plants. The fifth is for the mycelium. Also integrated is a composting chamber from a partner, Lomi, that aims to cut down the amount of waste products for sustainability.

Aside from the obvious applications for space exploration, CANGrow and CanPro may also be useable in remote areas or zones where it is difficult to grow food, given their compact size and their ability to create nutritious items.

Gavin Schneider, CEO of Maia Farms, told SpaceQ that when they submitted the original application the portal shut down midway due to a time zone issue. They sent a personal plea to the judges, including representatives of former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. “We almost weren’t in the competition because of this,” he said with a laugh.

Luckily, the application was accepted and the team made it to the top 10, receiving $30,000 in 2022. They spent 12 months building a prototype from their original digital designs. “We really demonstrated that we were able to produce a wide range of food outputs here that could meet the nutritional requirements of a four-year mission to the moon or Mars. The idea is not to meet all of the caloric needs of the four astronauts, but to supplement that diet,” he explained.

The team rapidly grew from the original pair – Schneider and industrial designer Steve Humpston – to the current roster of about a dozen. (The full team is now Gavin Schneider, Chris Okrainetz, Michal Suchanek, Ashton Ostrander, Bruno Pena, Mathew Cox, Steve Humpston, Andres Gandara Outeiro, Peter Neufeld, Sean Lacoursiere, Grant Smith, Matheus Cassol, Varsha Godbole, Michelle Walstra and Hamed Hamidi.)

The Ecoation team. Image credit: Ecoation.

“We added a number of different mechanical, manufacturing and electrical engineers to the team to really build up the system, and then that’s also where Maia Farms was able to come into the into the project and provide a lot of the biological knowledge and knowhow to actually create these food ingredients,” Schneider explained.

“The two different companies formed a joint venture … and then we won the Phase 2 of the challenge about a year ago, and we were awarded $100,000,” he continued. “There’s a lot of reporting that had to go back. We had to create a hazard analysis plan. We had 60 pages of technical documentation, electrical loads, water usage, reports, safety samples, video. So there was really a tremendous amount of work on top of the prototyping, the building, the growing, that all went into that.”

The finalized prototype includes several different climate-controlled modules integrated with a machine vision system “which is able to assess the condition of the crop in real time and to be able to provide insights, and then to dynamically adjust and change the climate parameters for the specific crop types,” Schneider said. The dwarf tomato species being evaluated was able to achieve yields of over 100 kg per meter squared per year, which he said is a significant achievement, alongside the strawberries produced by seed and the lettuce.

CANGrow, a collaboration between Ecoation and Maia Farms wins the Deep Space Food Challenge. Image credit: Ecoation.

Growing about four to five different plants, he said, let’s the operator “maximize the yield, because when you’re doing food production in a small space, you really have to be super-efficient with every single plant that you have.” The algorithm, he added, does items like classifying the ripeness of the tomatoes, and forecasting the yield, to allow the operator to plan how much they pick in the coming weeks.

Business opportunities will likely be forthcoming out of this venture. Maia Farms, Scheider said, “really got its legs under this program” due to the years of support allowing them to build and test different ideas. Alongside independent fundraising, the team is now big enough to commercially sell a variant of the CanPro ingredient. A spin-off opportunity is also available for CANGrow and the team is looking for “the right commercial application so that there’s opportunity for taking these systems into remote communities, such as in northern Canada.”

Scheider thanked both NASA and the Canadian Space Agency “for planting the seeds here for innovation”, for it allowed him to build in Vancouver “a team of some of the most brilliant thinkers in food and agriculture, to be able to apply these skill sets for a noble challenge.” He noted the work took place on volunteer time, on evenings and weekends. “It’s allowed us to get through and I think that the other space agency judges saw what we did there and were thoroughly impressed.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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