Ottawa startups develop low-cost prototypes at an expert maker’s pace

Michael Tremblay and Corey Ellis
The Growcer founder Corey Ellis, left, with Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay. (Photo by Mark Holleron)
Editor's Note

Want to see more of what's been made at MadeMill? Check out this piece.

For the past year, startups incubated at Bayview Yards have worked just down the hall from a makerspace and digital media lab. MadeMill has been the neighbourhood’s destination for prototyping and media services, offering Ottawa startups the expertise and resources to turn their ideas into a pre-market product.

The Growcer is a prime example. While the food-producing hydroponics system has its roots at the University of Ottawa, the startup turned to prototypeD, the team operating MadeMill, to support the jump from its fourth- to fifth-stage prototype.

Together, the Growcer and prototypeD built a mock hydroponics system in the parking lot at Bayview Yards to experiment with new ways of delivering CO2 to the plants growing in the converted shipping container. Configuring and reconfiguring the fifth-generation product through its multiple iterations would’ve been prohibitively expensive on a full-scale Growcer system, so the teams had to get a little creative to keep costs down during their experiments.

“We’re going from a $200,000 system to something that’s got a much smaller budget. You need to be able to do it and replicate the same kind of environment for the plants,” says Growcer CEO and co-founder Corey Ellis.

The Growcer
The prototypeD team helping Growcer install its hydroponics system at Bayview Yards.

The Growcer prototype is no longer sitting in the Bayview parking lot (though a replacement is on its way); the startup is selling the product to Agriculture Canada, which will then install the system in Nova Scotia this spring. The plan is to test the system at full-scale and figure out how to make the hydroponic solution accessible to growers who could use it.

If anyone knows the value of demonstrating the product before going to market, it’s Mike Tremblay, who joined Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards as chief executive from a senior leadership role at Microsoft Canada.

“From somebody that’s spent a whole career in commercial markets, if you can’t show it, nobody’s going to buy it. It’s really that simple,” he says.

Tremblay says the initial reception to MadeMill’s services has been positive, citing firms such as Crypto4A and AirShare as successful use cases. He says it’s rare to have a makerspace and digital media lab embedded in an innovation centre, but that it’s a model that suits early-stage companies like those in Invest Ottawa’s accelerator.

Costs to use MadeMill’s tools and other resources are reduced thanks to roughly $5 million in funding from FedDev Ontario. Tremblay mentions Ellis as someone who’s saved valuable time and cash by making use of in-house services.

“All the tools are there. He doesn’t have to go buy them, he doesn’t have to find people that understand how to use the tools. They’re all there.”

With FedDev funding running out at the end of this year, Bayview Yards is in the process of considering new models and vendors to operate the workshop and media lab space. Tremblay says he’d like to see the concept expanded, noting that space has been the biggest constraint.

From the archives