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Ottawa's Alida Burke blazing a trail for young female entrepreneurs through food security project

University of Ottawa student Alida Burke recently won the SheBoot Pitch competition for businesses by women.

Alida Burke is blazing a trail for other female entrepreneurs in the capital region.

The University of Ottawa accounting student and COO of Growcer is the 2021 winner of the SheBoot Pitch Competition award, an award given annually to female entrpreneurs driving knowledge-based industries in the capital region.

Growcer is an Ottawa-based social enterprise addressing food security with hydroponic modular farms that allow communities in harsh climates grow leafy vegetables and herbs.

Sponsored by Invest Ottawa and business incubators, the SheBoot Pitch prize comes with a cash award of $150,000. Burke and business partner Corey Ellis are using the much-needed funds to open an office and grow the business.

“In 2020, only two per cent of commercial investment went to companies with female founders,” Burke explains. “SheBoot is trying to change the dial a bit.”

Launched in 2016 with partner Corey Ellis at a University of Ottawa business incubator, Growcer designs and sells pre-fab insulated grow houses the size of shipping containers and outfits them with hydroponic racks large enough to grow as many as 500 heads of lettuce a week.

At a cost of between $200,000 and $250,000 a piece, the system works best for leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, and herbs, mint, basil, cilantro and the original hydroponic cash crop, marijuana. Pot was synonymous with hydroponics a generation ago.

“It drove the hydroponic technology,” Burke jokes.

In the meantime, Growcer is developing new applications for their modular farms to include fruits and succulents.

“It's not a Shopify thing yet. We're building a business,” the 25-year-old says happily. “We're using it wisely for growth investment. So our growth and products team got some to commercialize new products and new hiring in marketing and sales.”

The market for Growcer's modular farms has been accelerating. Since their first sale to the Churchill Northern Study Centre in 2017, they've shipped 35 units across Canada, and expect to sell between 35-50 annually. They plan to expand sales in northern Europe, Scandanavia and regions with climates similar to Canada's.

“We're seeing more interest globally,” Burke says. “Growing food is continuously becoming challenging with drought and climate change. Like in California. It used to be too expensive to grow food hydroponically. It was always cheaper to do it outside in the ground. But with drought, fires and climate change becoming a major threat to agriculture, farmers are looking for options, and with new technological developments, growing indoors hydroponically is becoming more affordable.”

As a social enterprise, it's important to Burke that Growcer serve a social function as well as generate profits. The company's three priorities are to help people, take care of the planet, and make a profit.

“From a commercial stand, sales are promising, but it's not just about profits,” she says. “Doing something positive is my main drive, by giving communities with food insecurities better access to food. But it's bigger than that as well, because it introduces other positive facets that drive people to want these, job opportunities, learning new technologies, education, there are many positive ripple effects.”

Coming from a long line of accountants, Burke original goal was to become an accountant at a large corporation. She had no desire of becoming an entrepreneur. It wasn't until she met her Growcer partner Corey Ellis at an entrepreneurial club at the University of Ottawa that Burke saw a way of combining her skill with numbers with a deeply felt desire to help people, a desire grew strong after an eye-opening trip to Nunavut where saw the challenges Inuit face with food security first hand.

“Sticker shock,” she remembers. “Food's extraordinarily expensive and there's practically no fresh fruits and vegetables. It got us thinking about solutions.”

“Corey and I found a lot of balance,” Burke explains of their successful partnership. “I focus on the people, the HR and the administration, building a healthy culture. Corey has the vision and the drive to push the company ahead. There's something to be said about having a group of like-minded people that care about things you care about, through thick and thin that's really heartening.”

Her advice for young women with an idea for a new business is to go for it.

"Try something new, she says, something that aligns with your personal goals and interests, and if it doesn't work out, you could go into accounting,” she say giggling. “It's a matter of having self confidence enough to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

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