Students test unique ways to grow food without soil

Speakers and “clean tech” competition entries at the Oregon Best Fest event in Portland highlighted connections to agriculture.
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on September 21, 2017 8:36AM

Skyler Pearson, left, and Hugh Neri show the NexGarden vegetable growing system, which they say could be used to establish “hyper-local” food systems in cities. The project was among the top entries in the PSU Cleantech Challenge, part of the annual Oregon Best Fest held in Portland.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Skyler Pearson, left, and Hugh Neri show the NexGarden vegetable growing system, which they say could be used to establish “hyper-local” food systems in cities. The project was among the top entries in the PSU Cleantech Challenge, part of the annual Oregon Best Fest held in Portland.

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Vegetables grow from an aquaculture piping system in a mobile platform developed by Aquarian Provisions, a team of Portland State University engineering students. The entry was part of the PSU Cleantech Challenge at Best Fest in Portland.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Vegetables grow from an aquaculture piping system in a mobile platform developed by Aquarian Provisions, a team of Portland State University engineering students. The entry was part of the PSU Cleantech Challenge at Best Fest in Portland.

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Vegetables grow from an aquaculture piping system in a mobile platform developed by Aquarian Provisions, a team of Portland State University engineering students. The entry was part of the PSU Cleantech Challenge at Best Fest in Portland.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Vegetables grow from an aquaculture piping system in a mobile platform developed by Aquarian Provisions, a team of Portland State University engineering students. The entry was part of the PSU Cleantech Challenge at Best Fest in Portland.

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PORTLAND — Student researchers asked to find “clean tech” solutions to pressing problems came up with agricultural answers in this year’s Oregon Best Fest challenge.

The entries included NexGarden, a system of growing vegetables with a nutrient-rich mist circulating amid bare roots in a closed container while the plants grow out the top.

Presenters Hugh Neri and Skyler Pearson envision such systems producing food on building roofs or elsewhere. Neri, of Portland State University, said they could become “hyper-local” urban food systems serving stores, restaurants or homes within a mile or so.

Brett Stoddard, of Oregon State University, displayed the Hydrone, a soil moisture monitoring system. Sensors stuck in the ground take readings and transmit them by antenna to an overhead drone. Stoddard said the system can be built and deployed for $1 per sensor.

Four Portland State University engineering students formed an enterprise they call Aquarian Provisions, essentially a mobile hydroponics system for growing vegetables.

Students Greg Sakradse, Tyler Bray, Sarah Smith and Ryan Crist were driven by a particular problem: Rising ocean water flooding and salting crop land in the Marshall Islands. Sakradse said the team envisions their food production system mounted on barges to aid the Pacific islanders. For Best Fest, they put a working model on a small utility trailer and hauled it to the competition.

All were part of the Best Fest PSU Cleantech Challenge, in which students and faculty from Oregon universities and community colleges compete for $50,000 in development grants and prizes. In the initial round, students pitch their ideas to a panel, with winners receiving $2,500 to develop prototypes that are judged in the finals.

Oregon BEST, the hosting agency, connects startups and entrepreneurs with university scientists and state and federal funding sources. The annual Best Fest includes the clean technology competition and presentations from industry and academic experts.

In one panel discussion, “Eat, Drink and be Sustainable,” David Stone of OSU’s Food Innovation Center said there is a four-fold value increase when Oregon crops are processed into final products.

“Oregon is about ag in the middle, the small farms and companies,” he said. “The big deal for us is making the products we grow here into something value-added.”

Stone drew a laugh when he talked about consumer markets for Oregon products.

“Millennials will try anything,” he said. “Cricket powder or whatever it is, they’re going to try it. They all want protein, they’re looking at all sources. Oregon has a real stake in this game.”

The Food Innovation Center, OSU’s outpost in foodie Portland, helps entrepreneurs with product development, food safety issues and sensory evaluation.





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