University of Alberta: Edmonton startup’s simulated sunlight aims to help producers grow more food with less energy

Sunlight, water and nutrients, in varying degrees depending on the plant, are the foundation of all plant life, but if you want to see them really grow, one University of Alberta graduate says threaten them with a little shade.

Michael Taschuk, founder of G2V Optics, explained plants growing in a field are always competing with each other for sunlight, so if a neighbour starts growing over them, plants can actually “see” this optically.

“There’s a change in the quality of the red light that they observe, so they will grow taller and they will grow bigger,” said Taschuk.

“That’s what we do with our lighting—we can mimic that light that they would interpret as shading so that they grow bigger.”

This “Engineered Sunlight™” is at the heart of a food security revolution aimed at finding ways to produce more food with less energy, often in extreme settings.

And not unlike the plants they grow, it is a crowded field of scientists hunting for the next breakthrough.

Innovation rooted in U of A research
That’s why Taschuk and his G2V team have never strayed very far from their U of A roots.

Taschuk, who spent 20 years moving from undergrad to PhD being trained as an optics and electronics researcher, previously collaborated with engineering professor Mike Brett and chemistry professor Jillian Buriak, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials for Energy, to build organic photovoltaic devices.

“Through the course of that collaboration, it became clear that there was an opportunity as LEDs developed to mimic sunlight really precisely, and then make a really good test instrument for the work that Jillian and her group were doing around solar cells,” said Taschuk.

“There are colours beyond what humans can see, both in the ultraviolet and into the infrared, which solar cells and plants care about.”

More recently, Taschuk joined forces with R. Glen Uhrig, a plant functional genomics professor in the Faculty of Science, who is studying the interaction of plants and light.

And like the first collaboration that helped launch G2V, Uhrig made an immediate impact.

“Glen took a look at our lights and found a mechanism to decrease the energy costs by 30 per cent,” said Taschuk. “Plants grow 30 per cent better if you get the lighting right.

“This is just game-changing for vertical farms, or indoor farming under controlled environment agriculture, as you can imagine.

“Without any additional inputs, we were getting 30 per cent more plant yield.”

Now, G2V Optics and the Uhrig Lab have been awarded a joint Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada Alliance grant and an Alberta Innovates Campus Alberta Small Business Engagement grant totalling $720,000 over two years to research light’s impact on the genetic response and phenotype of horticulturally relevant plants.

Michael Taschuk
Plants grow 30 per cent better if you get the lighting right. This is just game-changing for vertical farms, or indoor farming under controlled environment agriculture.

Michael Taschuk, G2V Optics founder

Finding the “optimal light recipe”
Uhrig explained that each type of plant will ultimately have an optimal light recipe—a combination of duration, quality of light and distribution across different wavelengths.

“Typically, we think of plants as growing outside, and so they’ve become adapted to the environment that they’ve been presented with, but that doesn’t mean that’s the optimal environment to grow them in,” said Uhrig.

He added these applications have long-term ramifications for uses in growing fresh produce in northern communities with minimal energy input, and even growing food in space.

“There’s lots of great startups in Alberta that have real potential for making big differences if they get the right support, and G2V, so far, has been very successful in that space,” said Uhrig.

“When it’s all said and done, we’ll have some tangible products that can be implemented as real-world solutions.”

And while the U of A has been essential to Taschuk’s research trajectory, he said the business side has benefited from access to a free program offered by the U of A’s Alumni office, called the ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service.

He said making business decisions when you don’t know the answer is unfamiliar territory for those with a scientist mindset where there is always an absolute truth.

“Over five years, VMS has been an incredible resource for challenging me in that thinking,” said Taschuk. “The program is built in such a way that they really wanted to develop you and get people to think through the problem on their own, and they’re there to ask challenging questions.

“It’s not that they’re telling me what to do—they’re helping me think through it and find the answer. I don’t think that we would have been nearly as successful without the support of VMS.”