Nafaa Haddou, co-founder and CEO of Nu Terra Labs, sees great opportunity for vertical farming to contribute to a more sustainable food system.
Haddou and his brother Ismail stumbled into the sector several years ago when a side project building a monitoring system for hydroponics spiralled into learning more about green walls and vertical farming.
"The more we worked on it, the more we realized there's an opportunity to start making a change and addressing the issues of the circular food economy," Haddou told Taproot.
In 2021, the pair decided to launch a startup to explore the opportunity further. Their research indicated that once the growing process begins, there's a lot of human input involved in monitoring and adjusting the growing conditions. That's the specific problem Nu Terra Labs is focused on solving.
"We sell an end-to-end monitoring system," Haddou said. The company is at the MVP stage for its integrated control systems for monitoring and adjusting lighting, temperature, humidity, and more. The systems are designed to be plug-and-play and are hardware-agnostic, Haddou said.
"Our ideal customers are vertical farm producers and infrastructure suppliers," Haddou said.
Haddou said he has several letters of intent in place with potential clients, including one with Edmonton-based Botanical Pantry, a developer of net-zero indoor vertical farms that launched its first facility in St. Albert. California-based Rotary Garden North America is another.
Earlier this month, Nu Terra Labs was among the eight early-stage companies from Alberta selected for the inaugural THRIVE Academy agrifood pre-accelerator program.
Haddou is looking to make the most of his participation in the pre-accelerator, including its partnership with the Olds College Smart Farm.
"Mentorship and tapping into experience in the agriculture space is a great opportunity to help us grow," Haddou said. "It'll also be great to have our assumptions challenged."
He also hopes the program will offer the company some legitimacy as it begins to focus more on sales. "We're hoping to build access to markets," Haddou said.
The company is still heavily focused on product development though, with several new features in the works.
"We're looking at camera vision systems and machine learning to be able to identify issues before they become visible to humans," Haddou said.
The goal is to be able to use full-spectrum vision, both visible and infrared, to enable growing systems to make adjustments before problems arise. Haddou said he's hoping to be able to demo the camera vision part of the system at the THRIVE Academy demo days in early November.
After that, the company will start looking for funding to scale up the business, with initial plans to launch a pre-seed round in the first quarter of 2023. Expansion to other markets such as California could be on the table, too.
But Haddou, who grew up in Calgary but moved to Edmonton in 2010 for university, plans to stay rooted in Alberta.
"The ecosystem in Alberta is supportive of innovation," Haddou said, citing the artificial intelligence program at the University of Alberta in particular. "It seems like there's a huge opportunity to grow here."