At age 13, Ryan Agrey thought he was headed down an engineering path.
After all, he liked to create things. He was an innovator at heart.
“I went to a job fair and oddly enough, it was an engineer that talked me out of it,” Agrey said.
He said he wanted to create things that actually exist. He said as an engineer, you do create, but it’s quite often on paper, meeting certain guidelines or regulations.
“I want to make things,” he said.
Agrey ended up in oil and gas operations to start and that afforded him the flexibility to continue creative pursuits.
That included the game of Minecraft. It’s a creative block-building game where users build and develop their own world. In it, he worked on an automated farm.
“There was an interesting element where, once I got it down, the convenience of not having to work for my food in a survival game – that’s a big part of it,” he said.
“It was so relieving, and then I kind of had a bit of an epiphany with this sort of like, ‘Oh, why am I not doing this in real life.’”
That’s how Agrey, who along with his sister Tessa, co-founded Alberta-based Hope Innovations.
Controlling the variables
Agrey said he and Tessa gravitated towards hydroponic systems to start. There weren’t many of these systems for the do-it-yourself gardener – at least not inexpensive ones.
They also realized that soil-based systems were difficult to operate because controlling the different variables in soil was too much for the beginner.
They also spent six months trying to get rid of the transplanting step. That was a pivotal moment for Hope Innovations.
Agrey said most hydroponic models rely on an inexpensive countertop system that requires expensive pods to produce the plants.
“To me, that’s not a sustainable model because if I’m being directed to try and save money and be independent, and both those things don’t really work with the pod method,” he said.
The Agreys battled through some production and manufacturing problems. He said it was a good lesson to learn: You have to design something to be easily manufactured.
Once they got everything rolling, COVID hit. So, they had to immediately transition to online sales.
“Then, we noticed a huge gap in the market for education, so we started building courses,” Agrey said.
Agrey said their goal was to create a system where the grower wouldn’t need to have experience. Also one where they could control the variables.
“All you need to know is to drop the seed in the cup, water it, and add a ratio of nutrients and you’re done,” he said. The next step is to try and automate it a little more.
The longer-term goal is to be able to replicate this system on a larger scale.
Doing everything backwards
Agrey said being a part of the Alberta Yield program through Platform Calgary was a game changer.
He said they developed a product, they found the problems, then they found customers. That’s the wrong way to do it, Agrey said.
“We were struggling to find what the problem was the customer has right now,” he said.
Agrey said they have a product, they can make money selling it, but they’ve learned they need to solve a problem for consumers. That’s led them to begin development on a new product – after hearing customer feedback.
“If you’re focused on the problem first, you don’t spend a whole bunch of time wasted,” he said.
The goal is to continue production and build an automated scalable system that anyone can use.
Eventually, Agrey is hoping they can build larger models for more commercial applications. Right now it’s a two-by-four garden.
“It’s hard to make the commercial system bootstrap. So, it gives us market validation, we get to see the ease of use, and ideally, we’re going to be able to sell these smaller systems, which lets us develop into the bigger system,” he said