The Growcer's hydroponics tech wows customers – and SheBoot pitchfest judges

Ottawa firm that makes weatherproof containers designed to grow leafy greens and herbs lands $150K grand prize
Growcer co-founders
Corey Ellis and Alida Burke co-founded hydroponics startup The Growcer in 2016 while students at the University of Ottawa. Photo courtesy The Growcer

As soaring grocery bills eat a bigger chunk of Canadians’ paycheques, an Ottawa company is seeing growing demand for its hydroponic technology that aims to make customers less dependent on global food supply chains.

Founded in 2016, The Growcer sells specially designed weatherproof containers that grow leafy greens and herbs hydroponically using light, carbon dioxide and nutrient-rich water.

The 25-employee firm has installed its indoor mini-farms at more than 35 locations across the country from the Far North to B.C. and Nova Scotia. Its customers include food-services provider Chartwells, which has set up The Growcer’s containers at colleges and universities across the country to supply produce to campus food halls and cafeterias.

While the company was already gaining momentum before the pandemic, co-founder Alida Burke says orders have been pouring in lately as supply chain bottlenecks and surging transportation costs drive up food bills.

“I think it’s just shown the importance of being able to have opportunities to grow local food,” says Burke, who launched the business with co-founder Corey Ellis while both were students at the University of Ottawa. “Relying on long supply chains in times of stress can be really difficult. Local food is more important than ever.”

The company’s revenues have risen nearly 140 per cent year-over-year in 2021. Burke says opportunities are sprouting up in other markets, including the U.S. and northern Europe, as the firm’s value proposition of helping customers become more self-reliant when it comes to food hits home.

“We’re seeing an uptick in interest and really hoping to support a lot of communities that we work with that are at the end of those supply chains,” she says.

Incubated out of the Invest Ottawa accelerator, The Growcer has been self-funded since it launched five years ago. But that’s about to change after the company captured the $150,000 grand prize at last week’s SheBoot pitchfest held during the annual AccelerateOTT event at Bayview Yards.

'A nice surprise'

“It was definitely a nice surprise,” Burke says of the new investment led by the Capital Angel Network.

She says the company – which uses software to control conditions such as temperature, humidity and the pH levels of water inside its containers – plans to invest the fresh funding in more advanced hydroponics technology, LED lighting and other equipment to make the system more efficient. 

In addition, the firm is looking to diversify its offerings by adding new crops such as strawberries to its current mix that includes lettuce, kale and spinach as well as herbs such as basil and mint.

Burke was one of 10 female business founders to take part in the pitchfest as part of a six-week bootcamp aimed at helping women-led enterprises scale up and attract investment.

Participants were paired with a seasoned business mentor, in Burke’s case veteran executive Colleen Kelley, the president of Stratford Management Consulting. 

The fledgling entrepreneur praised Kelley as a “role model to look up to.” She says the six-week SheBoot program has spurred her to “think big” as she strives to take her company to the next level.

“Sometimes we kind of have our blinders on,” Burke says. “It’s really been inspiring. It shows just how far you can grow and take a business.”