How a Gen Z inventor hopes to help save Earth (or feed us on Mars)

“My generation is a lot more aware of what’s going to happen to this planet”

For a long time, Jonathan Mui followed a dream born partly of his upbringing, partly of the circumstances of his generation. His plan was to board a cruise ship, where his cabin would double as an office. He’d spend some of the day writing code for clients’ websites, the rest doing whatever 20-somethings do on cruises.

“And then go on another cruise with that pay,” says the Digital Media and IT student, who enrolled in the program to sharpen his coding skills and put the plan into action. “Just travel the world developing websites. That sounded awesome.”

Why not? The “gig” economy, built on the backs of independent contractors, would have it that innovative self-sufficiency is a virtue for today’s job-seeking youth. Might as well make the most of it. Besides, self-sufficiency is all Mui has ever known.

Mui and his mother arrived in Canada from China in 2003. They had $50 and a plan to reunite with Mui’s dad, who’d come over ahead of them – and started another family. As a result, mother and son spent their first months in Edmonton in a women’s shelter before she strung together enough jobs to make it in Canada. Mui spent his free time in Boys and Girls Clubs.

“I loved it. It made me who I am. It gave me a look at the real world and real people, really young.”

But it would also be part of what would begin to tire him out. Following his mom’s lead, Mui hustled relentlessly. He sold Kool-Aid to pals at the club; he hawked newspaper subscriptions; he did a stint in fast food and more in retail; he even sold homemade ginger ale, brewing the stuff into the early hours of the morning. He saw a cruise ship as something that would take him away from all that, figuratively and literally.

Then, in 2018, the dream died. Mui still wanted to work for himself, but it would have to be in a different, more sustainable way. That fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on global warming, outlining the effects of hitting 1.5 C and 2 C above pre-industrial temperatures. Neither are good, but the latter places a particularly heavy emphasis on rising sea levels, increased incidents of extreme weather, and other calamities.

After Mui read that report, the idea of hopping a boat that emits as much pollution as more than 2 million cars was scuttled. “My generation is a lot more aware – I would say fearful – of what’s going to happen to this planet,” he says. “It’s pretty bad.”

With that, Mui turned his attention to making something to make a difference. Last September, he launched Agriolabs, maker of a self-contained, countertop garden he calls the Micro. It’s meant to take a bite out of carbon emissions while adding the flavour of fresh microgreens to anything from salads to sandwiches to stir-fries. But that’s not all. When the time comes, Mui says, the Micro will also feed the human colony on Mars, which he envisions happening in his lifetime.

“You laugh,” says Mui. But he’s serious as a 600-page report on the undoing of the environment, and as the business plan that has made him busier than ever.

The right thing to do and a tasty way to do it?

jonathan mui, NAIT student, agriolabs founderAgriolabs taps into an industry that’s diversifying by borrowing from its less carbon-intensive past. As the growth in farmers’ markets in Alberta might suggest – four-fold between 2004 and 2016 – more consumers are bypassing factory farms for smaller, often local operations with a more compact ecological footprint.

Mui captured the spirit of that movement in the Micro, a sleek, enclosed plastic box targeted at his own demographic. He sought to do that in a way that more complicated, bulkier systems with which he will compete do not. “This was meant to be the ultimate Millennial, Gen Z growing system.”

The Micro speaks to that generational fear over the fate of the planet. The invention first entered Mui’s imagination as a solution to finding wilted greens in his fridge come dinnertime. Knowing he wasn’t alone in that irritation, and that food waste is on the order of 50% in Canada, the idea grew into something existential.

“When I think of getting people on these systems, I think it’s one more person growing food at home.”

To Mui, that helps counter a couple of global inefficiencies. The first is conventional, large-scale agriculture, which studies have shown to account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. The second is transportation – from farm to store, then store to home – which is Canada’s second-largest emitter.

That is, Mui hopes to market Agriolabs on ethical and epicurean strengths alike.

“The term we use is conscientious consumerism,” says Geoff Stewart, owner of Rig Hand Distillery, and a mentor matched with Mui by NAIT’s Mawji Centre for New Venture and Entrepreneurship, which the student approached for entrepreneurial guidance.

“[Millennials] care where their dollar is going to end up.”

“Millennials are the driving force behind this movement,” says Stewart. “They care where their dollar is going to end up.” And they’ll pay more “for a product that has greater social benefit to the community.”

Will Agriolabs make the difference between 1.5 and 2 C? Mui doesn’t know, of course, but he believes “everything starts with the first little bit.” There’s a lot of room for innovation in that half degree.

From good enough to great

microgreens, jonathan mui, NAIT student, agriolabs founderThe irony is that what Mui has done is not a little thing. In September 2019, less than five months before this story was published, he started from nothing – including knowledge about home agriculture.

Almost everything Mui needed to know about things like product design, manufacturing and microgreens came from what he jokingly calls “Google University.” He simply turns to the internet. “Usually, someone has already run into the problem and I just take their answer. A lot of innovation is just taking what’s been done and doing it better.”

"A lot of innovation is just taking what’s been done and doing it better.”

His mindset also helped. As a web developer and user experience specialist, Mui’s approach – with the help of business partner and longtime friend Eric Chaba – is build, deploy, seek feedback, tweak. With Agriolabs, he says, “iteration is our thing.”

When we spoke in early 2020, he’d made no fewer than four prototypes, all of them crafted in his Edmonton apartment on multiple 3D printers. Each took about a day to make, and corrected previous deficiencies, such as introducing vents to drop humidity in the units from 99%, which leads to lanky greens, to about 60%, to produce stockier ones.

Throughout the evolution, though, basic principles have remained the same. Each version of the Micro is about 20 centimetres squared, less than 10 cm tall, and can stack into slim towers of multiple units, ideal for cramped living spaces. They comprise a case and a drawer, no moving parts, and interior LEDs help germinate arugula, broccoli, basil and other seeds embedded with a rice-based glue in a pad of hemp fibre, which Mui also designed. As little as a quarter cup of water will bring a crop of nutrient-rich microgreens to maturity in less than a week.

“The current [iteration] sucks a little less than the last,” says Mui. “It’s actually feeding me, which is good.”

That’s also good by Kelso Brennan, another of Mui’s mentors and a judge of a student pitch competition held in November 2019 by the Mawji Centre; Agriolabs placed second. The Edmonton-based serial entrepreneur feels Mui shouldn’t get stucky in the weedy phase of research and development. Instead, the goal should be an “MVP – minimum viable product.”

“Most disruptive technologies are rough around the edges when they come out,” says Brennan, who gave Mui one the 3D printers he uses for making prototypes. “Getting some of these units into people’s hand is probably the first step.” Fixes can follow.

Once Mui finally arrives at the best in a long line of good-enough Micros, he’ll deploy them to a group he calls the “founders.” They’ll pay a little more than what he’ll retail the product for, giving him and Chaba money to start moving on mass production. He hoped to begin that limited rollout by the end of February.

All this, of course, while Mui is a full-time student. After finishing classes each day, he goes home, “harvests” his printers for the latest prototype, sources materials for the next and thinks about how it could all be done better. At 10 p.m., he recaps progress by phone with Chaba. In the spaces between, he spends time with his girlfriend, or does homework.

He tries to take one day off a week, though he likely still gets pointers on multitasking when he does.

“On Sundays, I hang out with my mom,” says Mui. “She's the best.”

A bridge between hope and despair

jonathan mui, NAIT student, agriolabs founderRegardless of all the prototypes, the pitch competition win, and 16-hour weekdays, Mui worries about losing momentum. More than anything, the painstaking process of reworking design flaws seems to make him the most anxious about the future of Agriolabs. Money doesn’t, even though he’s invested between $5,000 and $10,000 of his own so far and has nothing left to draw from but student loans.

The unresolved challenge of looming mass production doesn’t seem to phase him, either. He’s looked at Canadian plastics companies and been frustrated by high prices. He’s considered finding a way to make commercial units himself, though he might struggle to raise the capital.

That gap in the plan is the one thing that worries Stewart, his mentor from Rig Hand. A search for kits on Amazon shows Mui doesn’t have first mover advantage in the grow-at-home microgreens market, but Stewart feels the Micro is special. Compared to its competitors, he says, it’s simple, inexpensive, effective – and therefore attractive.

“The thing I warned him about is having the ability to scale up rapidly,” Stewart says. “I think once he does get to market, he’s not going to be able to fill orders. The last thing you want to do is run out of product.”

Judging by Brennan’s assessment, too, a run on Micros is possible. “I’ve had a good intuition on product development as a whole,” he says. “My gut tells me what Jonathan is doing is something that society wants.”

“My gut tells me what Jonathan is doing is something that society wants.”

Likely, however, the NAIT student has an advantage shared by few others. In addition to the energy of youth, direction, passion, and the ingenuity of what Stewart calls “an adaptive mind,” he has Elon Musk, or whom Mui might call the potential saviour of the human race.

“I listened to his whole book,” says Mui of Musk’s biography.

As a business strategy, it may not be a bad idea to shoot for the stars by targeting the controversial entrepreneur and mastermind behind the push to Mars. After all, in 2019, his company SpaceX was valued at $33.3 billion U.S. “There’s a reason we made these things so damn efficient and so small,” says Mui. Space on those interplanetary shuttles is going to be far tighter than it is in a Gen Z-er’s apartment.

This is why Mui is trying to move fast and grow things. Agriolabs is like a 3D-printed bridge between hope and despair, over which Mui travels freely from one to the other. The Micro is a hedging of bets that his generation might not be able to live without. No matter how the wager plays out, whether 1.5 C or 2 C takes all, Mui has no plans to be on the losing end of it.

“We owe our greatest debt to Earth and we have an obligation to do good by that,” he says. “What we learned here, through our efforts to save [the planet], will hopefully teach humanity a lesson to preserve and respect what we have.”

In his mind, that applies even if what we have is something new, and very far away.

In the meantime, the view from his basement apartment isn’t as good as it might be from a porthole onto the Mediterannean, but, since starting Agriolabs, it’s begun to improve. “My stir-fry,” says Mui, “doesn’t look as brown as it used to.”

From idea to entrepreneurship

Arguably, Agriolabs exists because DMIT student Jonathan Mui was recommended by an instructor to visit the Mawji Centre for New Venture and Entrepreneurship. There, he shared his idea with coordinator Cecile Wendlandt, who connected him with resources and mentors to help begin turning his idea into reality.

“One of the things that NAIT is doing best is fostering entrepreneurship among its students,” says mentor and Edmonton-based entrepreneur Kelso Brennan. “Especially in our current economic times, job hunting is [hard]. Coming up with something new is important. NAIT is great for fostering this type of innovation. It’s focused on application. All the support and tools are there.

“It’s inspiring to see someone like Jonathan do this,” Brennan adds. “I think that what he’s doing will also encourage other students to start coming up with new ideas as well.”

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