Entrepreneurs take root in desire for microgreens

Adela Talbot // Western News

Engineering students Richard Lacroix and Jolien van Gaalen have developed an affordable countertop hydroponic growing system for microgreens. The system, called Migrova, recently placed first at the Ontario Engineering Competition in the Innovative Design Category and the pair placed first at the Canadian Engineering Competition in the same category.

Microgreens – those tiny, leafy shoots and sprouts garnishing your restaurant dinner – pack a powerful punch. They’re wholesome – with 40 per cent more nutritional value than their ‘adult’ counterparts. They’re relatively easy to grow. But at the grocery store, they’re not exactly cheap.

Now, thanks to Engineering students Jolien van Gaalen and Richard Lacroix, these nutritional powerhouses could soon grow on a kitchen countertop – sustainably and for a fraction of the cost.

“Last summer, we started looking into growing vegetables ourselves, and started looking into automated growers. The biggest issue with automated growers is they basically start at $1,000,” said Lacroix, a fourth-year Mechatronic Systems student.

Lacroix and van Gaalen set out to create an affordable grower, investigating what makes such systems so expensive. What they found was various actuators and sensors are required for automated growers to work – plants need a defined temperature, humidity and amount of light to grow and a home-growing system would have to supply such conditions.

To counter some of these requirements, which drive up the cost of an automated grower prototype, the pair focused on growing microgreens and designing a hydroponic system. Microgreens are harvested from growing regular seeds for two weeks, which are capable of growing in “regular house conditions,” Lacroix explained. No additional sensors and climate controls are necessary.

“Because we didn’t have to worry about the temperature or the humidity, we were able to bring down the cost (of our prototype). It was also really messy to grow in your house. Jolien grew up on a farm and suggested growing hydroponically,” he added.

For less than $200, Lacroix and van Gaalen designed a countertop hydroponic system called Migrova. The system works by growing seeds on burlap, which sits on a water surface, allowing the seeds to access moisture without rotting, on account of being submerged. The automated system is modular, with stackable trays. An irrigation system with a pump at the base carries water from the bottom up, filling each tray, with overflow creating a circular motion of water in the system. A light source on the bottom of each tray helps the seeds, sitting on the burlap liners, grow. After a couple of days with exposure to light, the seeds grow roots through the burlap into the water and the plants begin to grow up towards the lighting, Lacroix explained.

“We sought out to do was make growing things in your home sustainable. And we wanted to grow something that makes sense to grow,” added van Gaalen.

“You can grow anything with microgreens – radishes, broccoli – and the (tiny leaves) taste like broccoli. They have 43 times more nutrients than their adult counterparts, and any home grower can grow them,” she continued.

“Because they (the plants) are so small, nutrients are dense and packed in them so they are easy to incorporate into your diet. You can just cut them and put them in smoothies, wraps, salads. It’s an easy way to add nutrients into your diet.”

Migrova, which is still in development, would cost around $150 on the market, making it five times cheaper than other similar automated growers. Other systems, which feature more complicated irrigation techniques and misters for the plants, are more expensive to design, manufacture and maintain. Because of its simple irrigation system and design for growing plants for a mere two weeks, Migrova doesn’t require any additional bells and whistles.

“With other systems, there’s continual antennae needed from the user because plants need continual nutrition. Because we let (microgreens) grow for two weeks in Migrova, we don’t actually need to add any extra nutrients to the system. You just fill up the bottom reservoir with water, and you’re good to go,” Lacroix said, adding a home chef can grow microgreens continuously.

Migrova recently placed first at the Ontario Engineering Competition in the Innovative Design Category and the pair placed first at the Canadian Engineering Competition in the same category.

van Gaalen and Lacroix, who are preparing to graduate, are currently looking for ways to produce Migrova and get it into the market.