AquaVerti, a small group of urban farmers in Montreal who grow crops in water instead of soil, has won Amazon Wed Services’ (AWS) top prize on Dans l’oeil du dragon.

Earlier this spring, Rejean Bourgault, AWS Canada Country Manager, kicked off the 13th season of the popular Radio-Canada show to announce the grant worth $100,000. It was the first time a deal has been presented to the show's participants that didn’t involve a dragon or take an equity stake in their business. AWS evaluated season 13 businesses based on several criteria, from looking at how the entrepreneurs are using technology today to how AWS could help them improve efficiencies to accelerate their business. 

On June 12th, Bourgault joined some of season 13’s entrepreneurs to award the grant to AquaVerti, a Quebec-based vertical hydroponic farm that practices controlled environment agriculture. 

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“AquaVerti’s mission in using technology to sustainably bring about transformative change in the agriculture industry is exactly in line with some of the other start-ups AWS helps succeed,” said Bourgault. “AquaVerti will now have access to over 240 AWS services. With the grant comes mentorship, so our experts will support them throughout their growth and ensure they are using the right tool for the job.” 

Bourgault also surprised SilkNSoak, a vegan shower and home product company founded by sisters Melanie and Kimberly Castaneda, and OneTrip, an online platform for independent grocery stores to sell online founded by brothers Walid and Djalil Baba-Moussa, with additional runner up prizes, each worth $20,000 in credits and mentorship. 

“Picking a winner for the AWS grant was a tough decision,’’ said Bourgault. ‘’It ultimately came down to how these businesses are using technology today and how AWS technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI can help them innovate and grow faster.”

Growing to new heights

In November 2017, AquaVerti founders Georges Aczam and Stephen Moss started growing leaf lettuce in a small basement of a Montreal duplex.

“The goal was to build a working model of a vertical farm capable of producing 24 heads of leaf lettuce per day, in the smallest growing space possible,’’ Aczam recalls, whose produce is free of pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers. “The space was about 96 square feet. The result exceeded our expectations. From this basement farm, we began supplying a local independent grocer with leaf lettuce.’’

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Within a few weeks, the same grocer placed a standing order with Azcam and Moss for all the lettuce they could produce. The lettuce sold out within hours of delivery. Customers loved AquaVerti’s lettuce so much that they would ask for it directly when sold out at the store. 

AquaVerti is now intent on growing its business even further by using AWS to allow its different data sources to talk to one another. They’ll also use the grant to explore how AWS artificial intelligence and machine learning will help pull insights throughout plant growth cycles and help define ideal growth conditions for produce—testing nutrient solutions according to each ingredient, temperature and lights. 

“The AWS grant will allow us to harness precision data and help us reduce energy consumption and optimize operations, which is also essential to our business,” Aczam says. “And everything is scrappily-made here at AquaVerti, so the AWS grant is a real boon for us.”

 The runners-ups are also looking forward to benefiting from their $20,000 grants.

 “We’re so excited!” says SilkNSoak's Kimberly Castaneda. “Providing fast, personalized answers to customer queries is a top priority. I know this is something we can achieve by leveraging AWS technology. We’re keen to adopt generative artificial intelligence services, like Amazon Q, to optimize our customer service. We are convinced this will enable us to manage all requests efficiently, strengthening customer satisfaction and loyalty with our unique product.” 

Djalil Baba-Moussa of OneTrip says the AWS grant will help the company scale, build new markets and automate specific processes. “We’re starting to see how artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI help people work better and faster. For OneTrip, these technologies will help us populate our customers’ product inventories with image recognition and generate the specialty product descriptions at speed with AWS generative AI services.”

“Our vision has always been to allow people from all walks of life access to technology,” continues Bourgault. “We’ve been working very closely with successful Quebec businesses to help them discover innovative technologies since we launched our data centre region in Montreal back in 2016. By supporting these startups and small businesses, we’re helping deliver greater societal value across the country and fostering innovation right here in our backyards,” adds Bourgault. 

The Radio-Canada show is now available on-demand on ICI TOU.TV. Learn more and see episode recaps here.