Connor Yuen | CEO, Pontus

Spotlight
July 28, 2021

What got you excited about getting involved with Pontus?

We got excited about Pontus for a variety of reasons, and it became a company that, as we progressed, the mission became something much greater than initially thought.

The fundamental basis of what we are doing was very simple, and that's what stood out to us in the beginning. You have a plant that can be harvested every 24 hours and can double its mass in 24 hours, and it becomes a very attractive prospect.

As the founders progressed in our journey to build Pontus, it has developed into a very powerful movement to fundamentally change how we grow food. While other industries face instant innovation and rapid growth, for thousands of years, the general consensus is you need a large piece of land, healthy soil, and water for agriculture. Through our journey with Pontus, we have learned more about the shortcomings of current day practices and how innovation has to thrive in this industry to support our growing population and environmental changes. Global problems such as droughts, climate, overpopulation, and energy consumption all impact the productivity and the conditions in which we grow our food. Pontus provides an answer to all these issues and gives power back to the people to grow food wherever we want, whenever we want, with little impact on the environment but most importantly nourish our communities and set the precedent of having a healthy diet. Humans currently primarily rely on having a set amount of resources to create outputs that are the products we consume; however, the next big task we need to tackle is to create sustainable cycles to produce consumer goods without the heavy input of our natural resources.

Can you share what Pontus is building?

Pontus is an agriculture technology company focused on solving modern problems and inefficiencies in the agriculture industry with specific engineering and technological solutions. Most notably, our CEVAS system ( Closed Environment Vertical Aquaponics System) is an aquaponics system designed to scale massively to solve the inefficiencies of current day agriculture practices. Aquaponics itself has been an ancient practice, most notably in ancient Egypt that using modern day technology can be done at a great scale and is a highly sustainable process. If you look at nature and see the symbiosis between all living things, you will see balance in how living things interact. An example of this balance is mutualism which is the foundation of what aquaponics is built upon. Mutualism is a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, a close long-lasting relationship where both parties benefit. 

A few examples 

Bees
 gather nectar from flowers, which they make into food. Pollen rubs onto their bodies as they collect the nectar, and the pollen then falls off into the next flower, which pollinates it.

Humans
 have a mutualistic relationship with microorganisms, primarily bacteria, in their digestive tract. Bacteria aid in digestion and regulate the intestinal environment, and in return, they feed off the food humans eat.   

In aquaponics, we utilize the mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship of fish and plants and friendly third-party bacteria Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter. This symbiotic relationship not only benefits both parties involved but is also an infinitely scalable opportunity. Aquaponics combines hydroponics (vertical farming) and aquaculture (fish), which solves evident flaws in both these established industries. This is a soil-free natural process that can be found in lakes, ponds, and rivers. While neither hydroponics nor aquaponics uses soil in their systems, the main difference is what the plant eats. Hydroponics relies on synthetic (chemical) fertilizers as its nutrient sources. Aquaponic instead relies on organic fertilizer (Fish waste). Ammonia, in our case, the fish waste is often toxic to fish, especially at high concentrations. This is the plants' role as the plants act as a natural bio-filter to keep the water clean for the fish.  This loop is completed by having a nitrification process which is done through using beneficial bacteria Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter, which convert the ammonia into nitrites and nitrates (plant food). 

Through aquaponics, Pontus can produce food on a scale never seen before, in completely sanitary and controlled conditions that allow for the best quality produce to be grown locally. Our goal is to bring this technology to the global stage to help solve prevalent problems within our environment and food production industry. Throughout our entire existence as humans, we had relied on mother nature to give us enough natural resources and sunlight to grow our food. But with our technology, we can break free from this linear cycle of exploiting the world, and we can provide the people with the power to grow anything anywhere. Not reliant on the climate, soil conditions, and water supply, we can grow food anywhere on our planet and even potentially one day in space.

Can you share a bit about what Pontus’ plans are in the water lentils space?

We are very excited about water lentils, as we believe we have an incredibly valuable superfood in an undeveloped market. We chose to grow water lentils instead of something like lettuce, blueberries or spinach because of the plant's production capabilities and its high-nutrient content. Water lentils reproduce in total value in our system every 24 hours. This means we can harvest the product 365 days a year and produce an incredibly high yield. We have a proprietary blend of water lentils, but hundreds of strains of water lentil with a different nutrient profile we plan to test in the future. We have tested the water lentils that we grew in our lab, and the results were astonishing. We tested for a range of 42% to 50% protein. The blend is also very high in antioxidants and essential minerals and vitamins, including Potassium, Iron, Calcium, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Riboflavin, and Folate. It also contains B-carotene, Polyphenols, Chlorophyll, Lutein, Tocopherols, and more. Our blend is also an easily digestible protein and a good source of dietary fibre, with a ratio of soluble to insoluble dietary fibre of 20:80 and is very low in Oxalic Acid. This really makes water lentils a superfood that stood out to us, and we discovered that this could be the key to an extremely profitable vertical farming operation. Water Lentils are also very resilient, which is the perfect testing ground for scaling our operation to thousands of sq. ft. with relatively low risk and gives us time to adjust and continue to develop our CEVAS technology. Once we have got water lentil production down to a science, our technology allows us to scale into all types of produce, anywhere in the world. This process also allows us to achieve significant scale in our operations, reducing our costs and increasing our margins. It will enable us to compete with farms that leverage hundreds of acres of land to produce regular produce. Starting a lettuce growing operation with 20,000 sq. ft. is a venture that will struggle with profitability. Water lentils are the crop of choice to launch our technology to be recognized worldwide and start a movement to reinvent agriculture one facility at a time.

Pontus has a competitive edge compared to regular water lentil producers. We designed the CEVAS system to create the most optimized growing environment to produce the best possible produce with the least environmental impact. Pontus is here to change not only the quality of the product, but we have a long-term perspective in mind to make sure that our planet is protected. We no longer have to exploit the resources available to us to grow food but instead, create sustainable processes to ensure our home's protection and give people the option to support an eco-friendly future. Here are the two competitive advantages our product has compared to regular water lentils.   

1) Quality   

- Our technology allows us to grow water lentils in the most optimal condition (weather, humidity, etc.), allowing them to be the best quality possible. This will be done through constant testing and monitoring of the environment the water lentils are grown.  

- Our technology is built with biosecurity in mind. We drastically reduce if not eliminate contamination on the product grown, such as insects, birds, bacteria, and viruses. 

Our water lentils' quality is exceptionally high, but our boldest plan is to produce a one ingredient product. Instead of putting fillers and things regular people cannot pronounce to alter the product for a specific purpose, we plan to produce a one ingredient product. If you look at the ingredient label on our raw water lentils, you will see that only water lentils are present. This sets a benchmark of trust for our consumers as we are focused on being completely transparent with the way we distribute our product. If you are looking at buying water lentils to add to your diet, that is all you are getting when you purchase from Pontus, just water lentils.

- Value-added products are planned once we have established a solid market share of the water lentil industry. A commercial and studio kitchen is being built in our 20,000 SQ Ft water lentil production facility to educate the public on the benefits of water lentils and create different products to add water lentils to the daily human diet. We have tasted the product and cooked with it and think it will be very easy to work water lentils into products such as drinks, granola bars, pasta, bread and burger patties. We see a future in water lentils much like soy in that it is used in various ways, such as tofu, soy milk.  

2) Sustainable   

- We consume 95% less water in our aquaponics system as it is constantly recycled and cleaned by the system itself. 

- We grow vertically, resulting in using less space than traditional agriculture.

- We plan on integrating solar energy to reduce the carbon footprint of energy consumption.

- We do not introduce chemicals into our products.

- We do not utilize inorganic fertilizer, which can damage soil when used in high amounts.

- We do not use machinery that relies on fossil fuels. 

- We do not need to ship our product globally as our technology can be integrated into any climate resulting in food being produced locally wherever it is needed.

- We take care of the entire production process, ensuring that the end-product is always produced with sustainability in mind, such as sustainable packaging and strict environmental policies.

What is a biosecure farm, and how does that give Pontus a unique advantage in the plant based protein space?

Our technology is built with biosecurity in mind. This means that we drastically reduce if not eliminate contamination on the product grown, such as insects, birds, bacteria, and viruses. This is a significant innovation as most crops are grown outdoors contaminated by various sources, as listed above. We take biosecurity seriously, including installing air showers on the entrance of the production facility to completely get rid of any possible contamination, steel walls to separate the systems as the fish habitat and water lentil growing beds are in separate sections, using sanitary equipment such as mask and gloves, and having a strict sanitary process. This is important for all produce as contaminations cause crop failures, diseases and is just overall a gross thing. Pharmaceuticals and nutraceutical companies take sanitation seriously, yet in modern day agriculture, food is exposed then open, and few sanitation practices are present. This aspect is significant for water lentils as they are natural absorbents. They are such good absorbents that they can clean heavy metals from polluted water bodies through phytoremediation.  This is an extremely important point to consider when cultivating water lentils for consumption. Whatever is present in the natural environment the water lentils are grown in will be present in the water lentil cultivated. This is why growing water lentils in a natural environment is key, as this is the only way to keep the product as pure as possible. 

As mentioned earlier, biosecurity is an important aspect of our growing process. However, a huge upside results from investing in biosecurity in food production as we can eliminate chemical pesticides in our product. This is a game-changing development in the agriculture industry as chemical pesticides are prevalent in most of the produce we consume today. Even organic certified products may not be free of these chemicals due to contamination from other farms or contaminated water supplies. This means that any produce produced by Pontus is organic, and we do not have to add chemicals to our produce to protect our yield, thus making our product far superior to the alternatives.

How do water lentils compare to other protein sources in terms of environmental impact and waste?

Water lentils have a minimal environmental impact and waste; however, having integrated the crop in our CEVAS system, we have reduced the environmental impact further. Water lentils double in mass every 24-48 hours, meaning a much higher yield without utilizing as much land. This means it will be more sustainable than most agriculture crops as it takes a considerable amount of land to produce crops such as pea, soy, etc. This efficiency of land usage will be increased drastically as we also integrate verticality in our CEVAS system, meaning that we utilize even less space than traditional water lentil production farms. Water lentils also do not need soil, meaning we do not need to contribute to deforestation in soil-rich places to grow our crop and partake in soil degradation. Water lentils grown in our system have a drastically lower amount of water usage than soy and pea. We recycle 95% of our water, meaning our water usage is significantly lower than our irrigation counterparts. The CEVAS system does not use any mined or manufactured nutrients, meaning we do not contribute to deforestation or any mining practices to produce the nutrients to feed our water lentils. Our CEVAS system with our biosecurity protocols also prevents us from utilizing chemical pesticides in our agriculture practices. This is a massive change as it is better for the environment and is also better for the health of our communities.

Pesticides can contaminate soil, water, turf, and other vegetation. In addition to killing insects or weeds, pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms, including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants.  Pesticides can also reach surface water and groundwater through runoff from treated plants and soil. Contamination of water by pesticides is widespread. Heavy treatment of soil with pesticides can cause populations of beneficial soil microorganisms to decline. Pesticide sprays can directly hit non-target vegetation or drift or volatilize from the treated area and contaminate air, soil, and non-target plants. Lastly, all crops are either grown with organic fertilizer or inorganic fertilizer. Inorganic fertilizer comes from synthetic material but is harmful to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, can cause "burning" of the root of the plants as a result of the fertilizer being washed down too far into the root, and overuse of inorganic fertilizer can create chemical imbalances in the soil due to toxic buildup of salts. While organic fertilizer comes from living sources that do not have any of the problems inorganic fertilizer causes, most organic fertilizer comes from cattle, dairy, and livestock farms as a byproduct with their fair share of environmental issues. On the contrary, our CEVAS system creates our organic fertilizer in our facility by converting the ammonia from our fish into organic fertilizer for our plants. This is incredibly important as we know our fertilizer is created sustainably and creates the best growing conditions for our plants.

Can you explain how Pontus goes about manufacturing plant based proteins, from start to finish?

Our water lentils are grown using aquaponics, an organic growing technology that needs a bit of an intro. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish rearing) + hydroponics (plants growing in water - a soil-less method to allow plants to drink directly from the nutrient-rich waters). In a basic aquaponic ecosystem, fish effluent is converted into nutrients via nitrifying bacteria, which is sent to the plant grow beds, the plants then consume the nutrients, allowing for clean water to go back to the fish.

With Pontus' CEVAS technology, we have designed a more robust system. Our system is decoupled - meaning the fish tanks are in a different/separate process flow than the water lentil grow beds. Both the fish and plants have their own growing environments: different desired temperatures, pH, etc. By growing in separate areas, we can give both the fish and plants precisely what they want, without compromising!

The next thing to explain is how water lentils grow: they reproduce asexually. They float on the water's surface, with their root tails extending into the water column roughly a centimetre. A single "mother" water lentil grows two "daughter" fronds, which after a day or so split off to become a mother themselves. They define the exponential growth that becomes inherent in our business model. By carefully harvesting a percentage of the water lentils in each grow bed, we leave the remaining water lentils to reproduce and fill up the grow bed again so that we can continually harvest each and every day.

Once harvested, the process is quite simple: we rinse the water lentils, dehydrate them, then grind to a powder, weigh, package them or integrate it to a variety of different SKUs. (Note no fillers, no processing, no removal of their natural goodness).

Alternative proteins are clearly one of the fastest-growing trends in health and wellness. What advantages would you say Pontus has over other newcomers who are going after the opportunity?

There are many competitors in the plant protein market, so much so that it has become a red ocean market with hundreds if not thousands of businesses racing to take their piece. Pontus was built to create a new blue ocean market, focused on creating protein sustainability and improving the entire process of how plant-based protein is made from the very beginning in the plant's infancy stage all the way to your dinner plate to supply consumers with the best possible product. We aim to enter this blue ocean market with a very new but effective plant protein source, an improved agriculture process, and the unique selling proposition of allowing consumers to make purchasing decisions to support a healthier body and planet. Alternative proteins are definitely one of the cornerstones of our vision. We first decided to disrupt the protein industry after we discovered water lentils. With this in mind, we wanted to go beyond burger making or plant based protein powder. We wanted to disrupt the industry from the ground up to really change the competitive landscape, creating a product that is unmatched by our competitors. But also use it as a launchpad to drastically scale up our technology to reinvent agriculture for the better. As mentioned earlier, water lentils double in mass every 24 hours meaning per sq ft we can produce more protein than any other crop used.  

In the plant protein industry. At scale, we will produce an incredible amount of protein efficiently, and we will be harvesting it every single day. Our blend of water lentils also test around 42% to 50 % protein, far greater than the competition, such as pea and soy. This in itself is an incredible feature, but once you add on the complete nutrient profile, it becomes a whole different story. It is very high in antioxidants, as well as essential minerals and vitamins, including Potassium, Iron, Calcium, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Riboflavin, and Folate. It also contains B-Carotene, Polyphenols, Chlorophyll, Lutein, Tocopherols, and more. With this in mind, water lentils are a very flexible product. For example, we can make protein concentrates with a high percentage of protein. We can make nutraceuticals with the vitamins and minerals consumers are seeking. We can distribute the water lentils itself with its powerful superfood nutrient profile. Like soy, we plan to integrate water lentils into a variety of different products to make it a great addition to someone's everyday diets, such as pancakes, granola bars, and even alternative meats. The key competitive edge Pontus possesses is in the CEVAS system we utilize, which drastically improves the quality of the plant protein we produce. Such as;

1) We produce our plant protein in a highly sustainable manner, such as using less water, land, and fossil fuels than traditional agriculture.

2) Our plant protein is grown free of chemical pesticides, which is heavily present in the plant protein industry today.

3) Our plant protein is grown with an organic fertilizer that comes from a sustainable source rather than a cattle/dairy farm.

4) Our plant protein is free of an inorganic fertilizer which may harm farmland and the plants themselves.

5) Our water lentils are grown in a biosecure setting meaning no contaminants such as insects, bacteria, and birds.

6) Our water lentils are harvested with protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and professional gear to avoid human contamination.

7) Our plant protein tastes good! Often people like drinking the raw grind-up powder with just water. Imagine drinking soy protein with nothing but water.

8) Our water lentils are designed to grow using solar energy, meaning we can avoid using as much fossil fuels in our process.

9) Our water lentils are designed to be grown locally, not shipped from hundreds of Km away from other countries.

10) Our plant protein stands for a more sustainable tomorrow. Pontus operates with the vision that with the support of our community, we can disrupt the agriculture industry to move towards sustainability and efficiency.

11) Our plant protein is grown with taste in mind, rather than durability to survive the distance travelled or possible insects.

12) Our plant protein is not just protein. It provides many of the essential minerals and vitamins needed in a healthy diet.

These are just some of the reasons we believe our product is much more superior in sustainability and quality. The list goes on. We really believe we have something special here that will change the plant protein industry and the agriculture industry in general. The key for our company now is to really educate consumers to ask questions about where their food comes from, is it sustainable, and what is in it? We hope to educate the general population about how current day agriculture practices directly impact our environment and how Pontus seeks to improve these practices.

What challenges do you see plant based protein in general needing to overcome currently to be more widely adopted?

We think plant based protein needs to overcome a few challenges to be more widely adopted. The first is the quality of the plant-based protein being produced. Although plant based meats are seen as a healthy alternative, they often test positive for various pesticides and can be highly genetically modified. This often means that the plant-based alternatives have their own fair share of issues. We believe in our CEVAS system, we can solve this with biosecurity ensuring that no chemical pesticides or contamination are present in our product. The second challenge is the resources it would take to produce enough plant based protein for the entire population on the planet. Natural resources like water, soil, and land will become harder to come by as we produce more and more crops using traditional agriculture. Using our CEVAS system, we hope to reduce deforestation, pollution, and environmental damage caused by some widespread agriculture practices. Lastly, while other companies are trying to make plant protein taste " like meat," we believe in creating the best products to showcase the unique taste profiles of water lentils. We have created a ton of different recipes such as scones, pasta, and many more that bring out the great flavour of the water lentils itself instead of trying to make it taste like something it is not. We believe this will be the best practice for widespread adoption. If you look at places in Asia, you can see a large variety of plant based foods that taste great and highlight the taste of the plant itself. We believe the CEVAS system will help achieve widespread adoption of plant based eating as we want to be connected to the consumers and support their dreams for a sustainable future. For those who care about preserving our beautiful planet while ensuring that the food they eat is the best possible quality, we at Pontus will work hard and reinvent agriculture to create a brighter tomorrow.

What would you say you are most excited about building right now at Pontus and what potential impact do you see that having in the world?

The Pontus team is incredibly excited to be part of such a fantastic vision. We truly believe in the need for our technology and the opportunity to disrupt an industry that has seen evolution, not revolution. The global need for food with a growing population, water shortages, and extremes of weather NEEDS revolution. We are most excited about the bright future for the eventual mass adoption of vertical farming to create a more sustainable and efficient way to produce our food. More specifically, we believe our CEVAS system is designed to be one of the most effective ways to produce food for future generations. The agriculture industry today is unsustainable and not geared for our rapidly growing population. We aim to stop the widespread exploitation of natural resources to grow our food but instead grow food in a closed-loop system that can produce crops efficiently and with as few resources as possible. With our technology we can one day

1) Grow food on a massive scale with little environmental impact.

2) Produce organic crops with organic fertilizer created in a sustainable process.  

3) Eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilizers.

4) Produce food locally as needed to prevent having to ship different crops individually.

5) Cater our growing process to support taste and quality rather than durability.  

6) Grow food anywhere regardless of the climate or natural resources present, a game changer for places that struggle to produce food for their population ( China, deserts, Northern Canada)  

7) Reduce or eliminate widespread hunger.

8) Reduce contamination present in crops such as insects, birds, and bacteria.  

9) Reduce the chance of widespread epidemics as most bacterial and viral outbreaks come from contaminated food sources.

10) Drastically reduce water usage in the agriculture industry

11) Improve the quality of produce everywhere to ensure that it is good not just for the environment but the health of our communities.

12) Leverage automation to reduce the hard labour needed and increase efficiency.

13) Grow any crop that is needed anywhere instead of shipping different ethnic plants from specific climates. This will drastically reduce our need to ship bananas from Mexico and other region specific foods. We can grow ANY CROP ANYWHERE.

14) By reducing the food supply chain, we reduce the loss of crops that undergo the typical food supply chain and thousands of miles it has to travel. Which will eventually reduce the cost of goods to our consumers with fewer intermediaries at scale.

15) Allow governments and countries to establish food security by producing enough food locally to support their population.

16) Allow communities to grow food consistently despite natural phenomena such as droughts, snow, and floods.

17) Utilize Ai to monitor our crop production areas to allow us to produce a variety of different crops under the same room by having different climate zones specifically designed for the crop being grown. These are just a few of the challenges Pontus wishes to solve, and this list grows by the day as we learn more about ourselves and continue to ask questions to innovate the agriculture industry. Eventually, one day we might be using our CEVAS system to grow food in space. Our advisor Marc Laberge has consulted with NASA to discuss and educate them on the possibility of using aquaponics as a means of food production in outer space. But first, let's solve the pressing issues at home first on planet earth. We founded Pontus not just to grow water lentils but to reinvent agriculture and disrupt the food production industry on a scale never seen before. To create a more sustainable future in which food production is efficient and produced without exploiting our natural resources. We hope to make Pontus as a means of connecting with our consumers and being a company that represents the values of our consumers. We want our consumers to have the option of supporting a brighter tomorrow and understand that their purchasing habits directly correlate with the preservation of our planet and the ability to change the world.
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