Revolutionizing agriculture, one tomato at a time

By Matt Terry, March 8, 2017

Engineering student Melissa Houghton spends nearly every hour of every day thinking about tomatoes.

Ok, that's not entirely true – she also thinks about lettuce. And fish.

Houghton’s life has pretty much been dominated by how to better grow food since a fruitless trip to the grocery store in the fall of 2015.

“I couldn’t find any tomatoes that weren’t watery and gross,” she says. “They were all imported, and it made me think: wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy a Canadian greenhouse-grown tomato?”

The problem she encountered at the store was one of global economics: Canadian greenhouses can indeed produce tomatoes, but what they can’t do is compete with cheap vegetables trucked in from Mexico. That means local, but more expensive, produce goes elsewhere, while Canadians are left with imported vegetables that have sat on a truck for days.

“There are hundreds of greenhouses not 15 minutes from McMaster, but you’ll very rarely find a Hamilton tomato or a Hamilton cucumber unless it’s summertime,” she says. “Canadian greenhouses just aren’t economically competitive.”

Houghton was standing in the produce aisle, debating whether or not to buy an imported tomato, when she had an idea: what if she could harness aquaponics – a growing system that uses fish excrement to fertilize plants grown in water – to help local greenhouses drive down the cost of their produce by increasing crop yields?

“I thought to myself, ‘what if I could fix this?’”

That question soon became her obsession. And her class project. And her full-time job.

At a Forge start-up competition, Houghton was able to convince judges of the value of her idea and secure $20,000 in funding for an innovative aquaponics startup, Lumago.

“We tell people we make aquaponics systems for greenhouses, and they always react the same way,” she says. “’Wow, that’s so cool! Wait, what’s aquaponics?’”

Unlike hydroponics systems, which use artificial chemicals as fertilizer, aquaponics systems use fish waste, and so are organic. They’re also thought to produce larger plants which are less susceptible to disease. That could mean higher yields – and the use of fewer resources – for local growers.

Being a student and a CEO aren’t mutually exclusive at McMaster: Houghton co-founded the company as part of the Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation master’s program, which teaches students how to be entrepreneurs through "real-time venture creation."

“The biggest benefit to being your own boss is waking up every morning knowing that you are working towards achieving your goals, not someone else’s,” she says. “It is immensely satisfying, and self-motivating knowing the only thing that stands between you and your future, is perseverance and time.”

Houghton also has advice for those interested in becoming entrepreneurs themselves.

“Just go for it!” she says. “The safe path will pay your bills (and hopefully my job will one day too), but it sometimes can leave you with something to desire, an itch that can’t be scratched, or a nagging if-I-only feeling.”