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14. Progress on My Winning NASA/CSA Project

We're feeding larvae to astronauts!
14. Progress on My Winning NASA/CSA Project

As a background to this blog, in January of 2021, I entered the NASA and CSA Deep Space Food Challenge with three friends. In August, we learned that we had been one of the ten Canadian winners in Canada, chosen out of 65 Canadian teams. We received 30K to prototype our proposal. We are currently in phase 2, and four "phase 3 winners" will be announced in February 2023. Sometime in 2024, a final winner will be selected. Here is our project’s abstract:

For long duration missions in space, food recycling is a mission-critical problem. Our technology uses black soldier fly (BSF) larvae and microbiota to compost organic material within an automated system, producing nutrient-rich compost, animal protein, fertile insect excrement, heat, and carbon dioxide. These outputs can be utilized within other food-producing systems: the compost and frass as fertilizer, the heat and carbon dioxide within the plant-growing process, and the insects for livestock (or human) consumption.

The following tidbit I used in many emails may be more explanatory:

Canacompost, a non-profit I founded with friends, recently got selected as a semifinalist. We received $30,000 to create a proof-of-concept prototype by summer 2022, and if we are selected, we will be awarded $100,000 for prototyping. The winner may well see their technology being deployed on future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. In addition to space applications, the competition has a large Earth application component, as food production technology can help address the climate crisis as well.

Finally, here is a video we included in our phase 1 submission. It is a little outdated but the central idea remains the same:

And now that you have more context about my Canacompost team, below is my blog!

Today, I worked the whole day with a friend on integrating industrial gas sensors into our prototype. Each sensor requires a lot of work as our needs are too specific to buy ready-made solutions. Often, from the bigger picture, it feels like we are making glacially slow progress. The project is a behemoth, and we are chipping away at it with a couple of hands. However, I often must remind myself that it is a complicated project that demands familiarity in a vast number of domains. We must learn how to automatically and safely prepare edible ingredients from insects, raise insects, sanitize our system, wire and implement drivers for diverse sensor types, build hardware, create a Raman spectrometer, recruit and much more. It is overwhelming to think about all there is to do...

However, we have successfully recruited invaluable team members over the last year and it has made an enormous difference. We have reached out to academics who are happy to answer our questions and in some cases, help us innovate on new technological processes (say...cryogenization of a species not attempted before). As a rule of thumb, I expect too much, from myself and others, and when I feel overwhelmed by the work left to do, taking a step back to look at what actually happened in the big picture is satisfying. The help contributed by team members in the last year and a half is significant and motivating! We have created a team of very driven and skilled individuals. We remain limited by the nature of volunteer work, but participating members are diligent and go out of their way to help. Many have amazing drive and have taken on the responsibility to lead in their domain of expertise. Looking at my team truly motivates me to do anything I can to help them do even better.

That is certainly a new favourite part of my work leading team Canacompost: learning about how to create a highly capable team. Over time:

  1. I have immensely enjoyed doing research about all the topics our projects cover and finding new innovative ways of tackling the food production challenge in space and on Earth.
  2. I was deeply satisfied exploring the system's design, helping to determine what the different pieces would be and how to assemble them into a coherent whole.
  3. I have thoroughly enjoyed prototyping as it has taught me abundantly about electronics, mechanical engineering and much random practical knowledge.

However, I was not certain, four months ago, about still enjoying what the project asked of me. I felt all of my time was now devoted to talking to others. I felt like I was falling behind in terms of the real work that needed to be done.

At the time, we required new talent and I spent time on the task. With little prior experience, I tried many things. My largest effort was emailing 1100 professors in the STEM fields within the lower mainland in BC, Canada (where my team is based). While I did my best not to appear as a spammer, I was not impressed by the response rate.  Then, I contacted directly a few select researchers whose papers I had read — I got a response from nearly every one of them! I was even surprised that multiple researchers in insect cryogenics referred me to the same specific research lab. After contacting that specific lab, they met with us and decided to help us. This got me more excited! Unsurprisingly, it turns out the more specific and personalized the email, the more likely an answer will come. I wasted much time blasting 1100 professors for little results, but I suppose that had to be part of my learning experience! I included the template used as part of my emailing campaign below. I massaged that same template for targeted emails.

In addition to academics, we also needed more people with practical knowledge (or willingness to learn). Help from benevolent researchers is priceless, but at the end of the day, we must have boots on the ground to design and build prototypes. This was, and remains, the most challenging aspect of recruiting new volunteers. We attracted amazing talent since the beginning of 2022. Many are still with us while some had to move away or had diverging responsibilities. So far, the best recruitment method has been to ask team members to refer their friends. Apart from one (now central) team member who happened to have discovered us by accident on Instagram (and lives in a different country and time zone), all members are connections of connections. We are still in need of more skilled team members in engineering and sciences (as well as recruitment!), and that is something we keep working on.

To conclude, my role is now about supporting others. I still lead systems no one is willing to take on, but the majority of my work is asking myself: what can I do to support my team members in their own work? Before, I often got down to work with the state of mind that things must get done. Wanting to avoid time-consuming arguments with others, I just got down to individual work. The lone ranger approach is a losing paradigm for this project. Incomparably more can be achieved with teamwork and as a bonus, work becomes more enjoyable and motivating. Only a well-performing team can succeed. My responsibility as the team lead is therefore to foster that great team. I am learning, painfully, how to achieve that. A couple of other team members are also invaluable on that front. I now focus much more on helping others. If I can enable my team members to be successful, then I can also be successful. I often reach out to them to see how I can support them, I am there to answer questions and I more often express my appreciation for their hard and valuable work. It is a work in progress!

If you or anyone you know would be interested in joining our project, please reach out to me 😃 !