Sowing the seeds of social entrepreneurship

Published on May 22, 2020

Jonathan Mui uses his startup to benefit future generations

In September 2019, Jonathan Mui and best friend Eric Chaba (CFO and vice-president of product engineering) launched Agriolabs. The startup develops the Micro, a compact garden. Made from 3D printers in Mui’s apartment, the end goal is to help consumers reduce carbon emissions from traditional agriculture – and add fresh and nutritious microgreens to their diet.

The Micro  can be stacked into a tower of multiple units to grow arugula, broccoli, basil and other seeds. As little as a cup of water grows nutrient-rich microgreens to maturity in less than a week. The idea came to Mui (Digital Media & IT '20) when thinking about how he could create something to make a difference.

 “We owe our greatest debt to Earth and we have an obligation to do good by that,” he says. “I’m just trying to do my part, even if it’s in a small way.”

Opening doors to student entrepreneurship

Mui pitched the product at the Mawji Centre's Pitch Competition  and took home the second-place award.

“It felt like this whole school is on my team. I have entire institution backing me.”

“NAIT was the first place that I got a scholarship from,” he says. “It felt like this whole school is on my team. I have entire institution backing me.”

Having access to the Mawji Centre was a big part of his success, says Mui. He credits the centre’s coordinator for opening doors and making it possible to expand his business.

“It’s been absolutely amazing being a student at NAIT. Having access to the Mawji Centre and meeting Cecile Wendlant was a pivotal moment,” he says.

Graduating this year, Mui says he’s excited to be part of Startup Edmonton's Student Founder program this summer and take the next steps to ramp up production on the Micro.

“Starting a tech startup in the middle of a pandemic – it’s not the most comforting feeling, but working under pressure is what I do best.”

Helping COVID-19 frontline workers

Mui is now using Agriolabs’ 3D printers to make ear protectors to aid frontline workers who need to wear face masks for extended periods of time. He and his girlfriend Denise Bermejo (Digital Media and IT ’20) were inspired to create the “ear savers” after seeing them printed by a boy in British Columbia.

“I saw nurses commenting online that after 12 hours it feels like your ears are slowing being sawed off,” says Mui.

He had some leftover filament (not being used to produce the Micro) on hand, which he thought he could use to print a few hundred or so for people who needed them. He posted about it on social media. From there, he says, it blew up overnight and got covered by the news the next day.

"Our ear savers aren’t saving lives, but it’s saving ears.”

Demand was so high they ran out of filament and looked to local distributors to get more. To offset costs, Mui set up a form on the Agriolabs website for anyone who wanted to contribute money to provide ear savers for frontline essential staff.

By mid-May, Mui and Bermejo delivered over 11,000 ear savers to clinicians and healthcare practitioners, nursing home workers and others. The team is able to print over 300 ear savers a day in batches of 72 every 3 hours and 40 minutes. That means, they’ve been working night and day to harvest the product, clean the printer and reload the filament for the next batch.

Being run off their feet and the lack of sleep is well worth the sacrifice, says Mui.

“It’s our little way of doing what we can. Our ear savers aren’t saving lives, but it’s saving ears.”