The Growcer: Ottawa scale-up creates world-changing food security solution with global impact

Alida Burke
Co-founder and COO, The Growcer
Lettuce growing in Churchill, Manitoba farm.

In Canada’s capital, Alida Burke and Corey Ellis, co-founders of The Growcer, are juggling calls with prospective customers, showcasing their novel food security solution and recruiting new talent. Currently headquartered in the iO Accelerator managed by Invest Ottawa at Bayview Yards, Ottawa’s one-stop acceleration shop, these young entrepreneurs have a lot to smile about. With increasing coverage from global media such as Fast Company, which recognized The Growcer as one of the top 12 world-changing innovations in food in 2018, the company is attracting attention from potential clients and investors worldwide. And it is no wonder. This Ottawa social enterprise has established a commercially viable and profitable technology business that addresses a global social challenge: cost-effective, secure and sustainable local food production in remote, harsh climates.

Creating a solid business case for impactful ideas that can drive change in communities, innovative solutions such as the plug-and-play hydroponic growing system produced by The Growcer are changing the face of social entrepreneurship. Bringing a solution that is both viable and community-affirming to investment spaces, The Growcer demonstrates what diversity can look like as a business practice. With a solution informed by a clear vision of how to better the experiences of underserved communities, The Growcer’s success stands as an exemplar of the social good that can come from expanding business focus to recognize the needs of diverse communities and strive for equity.

As a young woman entrepreneur, The Growcer’s co-founder and COO, Alida Burke, knows what it takes to change the status quo. Here, Alida describes her entrepreneurial journey, sets out her vision of a food secure future for all and reflects on the many opportunities available for social entrepreneurs in Canada

The seed of an idea

The statistics are clear. After more than a decade of improvements in dealing with food insecurity, there is, once again, a rise in the number of people who live with hunger and inadequate nutrition every day of their lives. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the number of undernourished people increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, up from around 804 million in 2016. After decades of improvement, this backward movement is startling. In addition, globally, one in three women of reproductive age is affected by anemia which has significant health and development outcomes for women and their children.

University of Ottawa Growcer farm growing produce for their dining hall.
Growcer farm located in Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

As University of Ottawa students, Corey Ellis and I traveled to Iqaluit with Enactus where we learned about the challenges of growing food in the inhospitable circumstances that face the people of the North. I was struck by the food security issues, which meant many do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food for an active, healthy life. It is estimated that 7 out of 10 Inuit preschool children are food insecure as a result of a hunter-gatherer society adapting to change. According to The Council of Canadian Academies, that is the highest food insecurity rate of any Indigenous population in a developed country.

Corey and I worked closely with Inuit communities to understand thoroughly what their needs are. Then we set to work to create an affordable solution. We developed The Growcer, which works to empower people to take control of their own food system.

Every dollar invested in our Arctic Growing Systems results in over $19.48 in returns and direct government savings. That’s huge in terms of impact in northern communities.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs

We got our start at Startup Garage at the University of Ottawa and collaborated with several partners in Alaska. When we joined the Accelerator Program at Invest Ottawa (Ottawa’s lead economic development agency), we sold our first Arctic Growing System (AGS) IV in Canada. We now have 15 AGS installations across North America in Alaska, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

With critical support from Invest Ottawa, the City of Ottawa and FedDev Ontario, we also established one of our systems onsite at Bayview Yards. This enables Ottawa innovators, technology developers, entrepreneurs, startups, scaleup companies and aspiring entrepreneurs to beta test, validate and refine different agri-tech innovations, technologies, products and processes in a unique living lab. We had the honour of touring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through this pod and showcasing its capabilities in April 2018.

We even had the opportunity to pitch to the investors on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. When we were able to secure $250,000 in funding as a result of our pitch, I was over the moon. We had already been working on The Growcer for over two years so the thought of this injection of capital was very exciting. However, we decided, given the amount of growth we’d attained, we would pass on the investment. But the door remains open to us, should we change our minds.

Employees of The Growcer.
Employees of The Growcer.

The business case

There is a perception that local food may not be profitable but, in fact, it is. For example, every dollar invested in our Arctic Growing Systems results in over $19.48 in returns and direct government savings. That’s huge in terms of impact in northern communities.

Plus, the AGS units have applicability in harsh conditions around the world, making them incredibly useful in desert environments and other remote areas with applications for communities as well as defense and industry.

They are also helpful in settings where large amounts of food are required and, as a result of the volume, are not always as nutritious as they could — or should — be. Our partnership with uOttawa led to Chartwells Canada, one of the largest food service providers that provides meals to university and college students across Canada. It’s exciting because we now have a national partnership with Chartwells Canada to bring Growcer systems to campuses across Canada. As a recent graduate myself, it feels great to know that more students are offered fresh and healthy food options at school cafeterias across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touring the Growcer demo farm at Bayview Yards.

Advice for aspiring young entrepreneurs and women founders

I think it’s important for women and youth to embrace the uncomfortable. There may be a tendency to underestimate our abilities or to feel like the “odd person out” in a room of older men. But taking risks is always worth it. And, it’s important to stay curious, keep learning and never settle.


There’s a saying – if I had known how difficult this venture was going to be, I would never have even begun it, but I’m so glad I did! – and that’s true of The Growcer. We had many challenges along the way but I’m so glad we stuck with our vision.

The truth is that my greatest challenges have also brought me my greatest joys. There’s another saying — if it were easy, everyone would be doing it — and I can say that’s true for The Growcer. It was difficult. People didn’t want to buy into our crazy vision of farming in the north. Starting a company in the manufacturing space is hard, even for seasoned businesspeople. We were students while we were bootstrapping our first prototype, so we were incredibly busy. Looking back, I wonder when I had time to sleep.

But it was so worth it to be where we are now. We have grown to 10 employees with diverse abilities and skill sets and bringing on our first staff members was very exciting as they really understand and embrace our vision of sustainability and food security and are a part of bringing it to life.

The truth is that I did not set out to be an entrepreneur. But I saw a problem that I knew had a solution. That was the catalyst. I knew we could create a solution to bring food security to folks in the north. And I’m so glad that the original vision has expanded to include wherever fresh, healthy and nutritious foods are needed but difficult to grow.

It's time for the exciting global shift to social entrepreneurship, innovation and inclusion. Finding solutions to make the world a better place to live for all of us — rather than focusing on shareholder value alone — is very important in this time of climate change, growth in the gap between the wealthy and poor, and the rise of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 with artificial intelligence, IoT and machine learning.

Finding solutions to make the world a better place to live for all of us... is very important in this time of climate change, growth in the gap between the wealthy and poor.

Initially founded at the University of Ottawa in 2016, The Growcer has created a state-of-the-art farming system that combines hydroponic technology with precision climate controls to enable farmers to grow fresh produce with ease. Their flagship Arctic Growing System (AGS) IV is built in retrofitted insulated shipping containers and can produce more than 4 tonnes of produce annually in temperatures as cold as -52°C. Deployed in 12 regions and counting, this novel food security solution is already achieving impact in North America, including Canada’s Indigenous communities.

The Growcer now has 15 AGS installations across North America, including installations in the following locations:

  • Dutch Harbor, Alaska
  • Dillingham, Alaska
  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
  • Churchill, Manitoba
  • Ottawa, Ontario
  • Kuujjuaq, Quebec
  • Kentville, Nova Scotia
  • Kugluktuk, Nunavut
  • Norway House, Manitoba

About Invest Ottawa

Invest Ottawa is the lead economic development agency for Canada’s Capital, facilitating economic growth and job creation in the City of Ottawa. Guided by a vision to help realize Ottawa’s full potential as a globally-recognized, innovative and future-ready city, and the best place to learn, work, live, and play, Invest Ottawa delivers venture development and global expansion programs and services that catalyze the growth and success of entrepreneurs and firms. These include: small business training; mentorship; acceleration for technology firms; foreign business and investment attraction; local business retention and expansion in targeted sectors; commercialization; and marketing Ottawa’s diversified economy and high quality of life. Since 2012, Invest Ottawa has worked with thousands of startups, scale-ups and SMEs; helped firms to attract $322 million in capital; contributed to the creation of more than 6,350 jobs; and attracted $293 million in Foreign Direct Investment. For additional information, please visit:

LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Photography credits
1 (Image behind title) Churchill Northern Studies Centre
2-5 The Growcer
6 Invest Ottawa

Alida Burke, Co-founder and COO, The Growcer

Alida Burke

Co-founder and COO, The Growcer

Alida is the co-founder and COO of The Growcer. Her focus with The Growcer is to use technology, business and education as tools to empower communities globally. A graduate of the University of Ottawa, she became interested in social entrepreneurship through a student organization called Enactus where she began working with northern and Indigenous communities in Canada. Alida is currently working towards achieving her Chartered Professional Accountant designation and in her spare time, she enjoys finding her next travel destination and hiking.

The Growcer | Twitter

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