Seneca Polytechnic partners with Just Vertical to improve harvestable yields in non-ideal growth conditions
Applied research project results in “recipe” to optimize hydroponic gardening crops

A researcher holds a basil plant grown in an experimental hydroponics setting.
While completing his master’s degree, Kevin Jakiela worked in the Northwest Territories where he researched food growing strategies for Indigenous communities.

“My goal was to determine how to elongate growing seasons in the harshest conditions when temperatures were -40°C, with roughly 20 hours of darkness,” he said.

With that objective in mind, the idea for a business was born.

In 2016, Mr. Jakiela co-founded Just Vertical, an indoor, vertical farming company in Toronto that builds, sells and supports highly scalable, hydroponic indoor gardening and farming modules.

“Our main mission and vision for our company is to be a part of the solution for food insecurity,” said Mr. Jakiela, who now serves as Just Vertical’s President.

Hydroponic gardening – the practice of growing produce without soil – can use 95 per cent less water and grow crops faster than traditional agriculture methods making it ideal in harsh environments like Canada’s Arctic.

And while indoor vertical farming is becoming more popular, it is currently limited by the varieties that can be grown and the nutritional density of the crops.

That’s where Seneca Polytechnic comes in.

Mr. Jakiela recently collaborated on an applied research project with Seneca Applied Research and the School of Biological Science & Applied Chemistry (BSAC) to develop a series of “crop recipes” to determine ideal indoor light intensity and frequency for optimum growth.

The objective of this project was to optimize the conditions for growing basil and mint plants, enabling customers to increase the total yield and improve the nutrient content of their food compared to crops grown under standard conditions.

BSAC professors George Clark and Jamie Cote oversaw the project.

“By helping Just Vertical optimize food crop growth conditions, we got to participate in the development of this exciting growth area of agriculture in Canada,” Mr. Cote said. “Students developed analytical methods for nutrients in plant samples and learned how to change growing conditions using Just Vertical’s AEVA growth system.”

Just Vertical is now working with Seneca Polytechnic to renovate the vertical farm housed inside the two-storey retrofit ed shipping container at Newnham Campus.

Once complete, the first floor will produce food for First Peoples@Seneca and Seneca Dining Services. The second floor will be a designated research and development hub for growing various plants and studying and deploying renewable energy technologies.

“Our goal is to have students working in Seneca Polytechnic’s greenhouse,” Mr. Jakiela said. “We want to be able to cater to all spaces and have a positive impact as we grow, and I think that’s where we align with Seneca really nicely.”