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Backus Agrilabs Creates a System for Overcoming Food Deserts

Food deserts are an issue affecting communities all across Oregon, an issue Denver Backus is motivated to solve. Backus is currently a sophomore at the University of Portland studying computer science and entrepreneurship.

In 2021, Backus started searching for a research project that would inspire him, he first pursued a specialized hop breeding program for microbreweries. As he gained traction among campus faculty, someone mentioned trying to grow hops hydroponically. This led to the creation of Backus Agrilabs; a research company that focuses on using new ways to make agricultural practices more sustainable.

Backus first focused on indoor production using hydroponics and began incorporating designs that maximize space with vertical farming tech. By late 2021, he had built his first indoor vertical farm measuring about 100 square feet. From there he began working with a capstone team of seniors who were already working on vertical farming.

They’re currently building a second vertical farm on campus and his team is working on designs for a robotic system. The goal is to create a space where engineers can begin to test their designs. In addition, a professor is teaching a class in Fall 2022 around his project with 25 students who will be working on the crop management system to collect growth data, and figure out the most efficient way to grow the crops.

“There’s been a huge push of faculty support and the project is moving at a fast pace,” noted Backus. “Six months ago I didn’t know how to grow crops and now we’re already designing robots.”

Their end goal is to have an automatic harvesting system that manages and harvests crops using a robot. “This will allow us to create a large-scale ‘vending machine’ for crops, is how I like to describe it,” said Backus. “We’re going to try to give the public access to the warehouse by creating a lobby with touchscreen devices so that the customer can select which crop they want and then a robot will harvest it for them. We’re trying to give people access to fresh produce.”

Backus said that he is creating this innovative system to address food deserts scattered around Portland and the rest of Oregon. The goal is to put growth centers in the middle of these areas to serve people who don’t have access to fresh produce. They are also targeting people that can’t regularly buy groceries.

“We’re lowering the price of foods in these areas to reach most people because people in these communities need food and they don’t have access,” explained Backus. “Food equity in these regions is extremely low and it’s for a reason: grocery stores place their stores where people can afford to buy groceries.”

Backus continued, “This program is a way to make food more accessible for everyone. Restaurants will be able to buy gourmet food that is hard to grow in the Pacific Northwest and those funds will help build growth centers for communities that don’t have access to food.”

Backus has been focusing on building more than community food centers, his real world experience is building a knowledge pool to make innovations more impactful. A year ago, while working as a project engineer intern he got insight into how to make a project run smoothly. He said he’s learned a lot about project management and the process it takes to launch a project. “One thing I’ve learned is that you just have to keep trying, keep remaking. You’re going to fail and that’s totally okay.”

He said he wasn’t okay with failure before he began inventing and understanding the process. Now that he knows it’s okay to fail, he said he doesn’t get as discouraged when something doesn’t go exactly as planned. “There are a lot of bumps in the road but through innovation, it’s easier to get over those.” He attributes some of his success to the mentors and programming provided by Invent Oregon.

One of the key features of Invent Oregon is providing teams access to professional mentors and investment dollars to help take their ideas from prototypes to commercialization. It is also a way for faculty to support and encourage students with innovative ideas.

Backus said throughout the competition, he’s met some incredible people and he plans on continuing to develop these relationships and ultimately help each other down the road. He’s met other students at OSU that have similar interests and he is continuing to build on these relationships.

“Others have experience and expertise in areas I don’t, and vice versa, and that has helped me understand the value of having a team behind you,” Backus said. In addition, Backus would like to develop a team from different schools such as Oregon State that have a large agriculture school. He has been connecting with other Invent Oregon competitors and is building a network to keep his momentum going.

Backus plans on continuing the company and project after graduation. “I have an interest in growing things; like actually growing stuff you can eat. When I harvested my first lettuce, I freaked out. It’s a really cool experience to eat the food that you have; that you’ve grown. I’ve gotten a lot of traction from this project too. And I want to continue that into a master’s program.”

Backus added, “I enjoy the research, and want to keep helping people and the environment.”

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