By: Krista Henry (she/her)

Future-ready engineers at startup Mycro Harvest use artificial intelligence (AI) to increase food production and help meet future demand. 

The startup hires Waterloo co-op students to help assist their smart farms. Smart farming adopts advanced technologies to optimize and improve sustainability in agricultural production.

Mycro Harvest uses low-cost automations, powered by an AI growing system. The technology helps farmers to produce enough mushrooms to meet demand. Mycro Harvest's system provides constant monitoring, automatically adjusts environmental conditions based on crop needs, protects crops and increases production while reducing labour costs.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, by 2050, food production will need to increase by 60 per cent to feed a world population of 9.3 billion people.

The use of technology in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture may provide viable solutions to help meet this need.

“At Mycro Harvest, we see the agriculture space as an important industry to inspire engineers to work in,” says Justin Cheng (he/him), chief technology officer and co-founder of Mycro Harvest.

“Agriculture is the most important supply chain in the world. We have demanding needs to meet to feed the future. We really don’t have enough talent in the agri-tech industry to support that.”

The startup uses Waterloo co-op students to fill that talent gap. Students work as product engineering assistants (smart farming systems) and as machine learning research and development assistants.

As a former Waterloo co-op student himself, Cheng (BASc '22) understands the value students bring to the workplace.

Justin Cheng

Justin Cheng, chief technology officer and co-founder of Mycro Harvest

Students are a big part of our team and culture. They work on the hands-on building of our shipping container farms, on building prototype code for our machine learning algorithms and on validating sensor choices for our monitoring systems. We look for those scrappy, passionate students who want to make an impact on a product.

Justin Cheng, chief technology officer and co-founder, Mycro Harvest

When hiring, Mycro Harvest appreciates students who are involved in extracurricular design teams, who have personal projects or work with various clubs. “We look for a learning mentality and give them a lot of responsibility. But we give students the freedom to learn and make mistakes,” adds Cheng.

Inspiring next gen talent

Although Canada ranks as number two globally for agri-tech investors (according to Invest Canada), students often lack exposure to the agri-tech or food production industries. As industry works to accelerate automation and digitization, tech-savvy students can be an asset. Waterloo students use their expertise with robotics, sensor data and AI deep learning to help organizations accelerate their goals.

“We see students who are roboticists and software engineers get the experience of working with organic systems,” says Cheng. “We get to witness them as they experience the value and reward from growing things themselves. Which then inspires their passion for agri-tech. I hope in the future we can continue to inspire more students.”

Group of Waterloo co-op students and staff smiling and standing in front of Mycro Harvest labelled shipping container

As an entrepreneur and Waterloo graduate, Cheng sees how Waterloo co-op students stand out for their entrepreneurial spirit. Waterloo students, and the employers who hire them, are set up for success because students have access to a startup culture through programs like Velocity and campus events like hack-a-thons.

The exposure students at Waterloo get with early-stage startups isn’t very common in other universities. Plus, the experience students get through co-op is unmatched. Not many other schools give students the opportunity that Waterloo does to apply the skills they learn in classes to real engineering teams.

Justin Cheng

Mycro Harvest plans to hire more co-op students and help the industry continue to grow.