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Centre for Building Sustainable Value · Julia Bevaqua

New venture by Ivey alumni tackles soil degradation through composting and big dreams

May 5, 2022

Terra Optima 2 (002)

During their time at Ivey and through various entrepreneurial experiences, Dan Nejman (HBA ’21) and Will Wang (HBA ’21) noticed a number of wicked problems related to organic waste, soil degradation, and food insecurity. For instance, food waste left in landfills emits carbon into the atmosphere. Soil degradation makes it harder to grow plentiful and high-quality food. Plus, a lack of affordable and healthy food options creates food deserts, even in major urban areas.

Nejman and Wang saw the interconnection between these issues and launched Terra Optima in response to explore and accelerate solutions that address them all.

Terra Optima has an ambitious vision to leverage nature and technology to transform food waste into enhanced soils, and to grow more food, more sustainably. They’re starting here on earth, restoring and regenerating existing soil, but the long-term vision is to apply their knowledge to our celestial neighbours too.

For now, the focus is on earth where there is much room for improvement. Specifically, Terra Optima is introducing life back into soil through a myriad of composting techniques from aerobic bacteria to mealworms to larvae. The rejuvenated soil provides valuable nutrients back to plants and also stores carbon in the ground. Their processes also divert food waste from the landfill, which helps reduce emissions.

The origin of Terra Optima goes back to a second-year business classroom where Nejman and Wang first met and connected over a mutual love for entrepreneurship. Prior to launching Terra Optima, Nejman started a sports supplement brand and Wang created a business that made premium protein bars. After meeting in the course, Nejman and Wang remained friends and supporters of one another’s ventures. However, it was only after landing in the same section during their HBA1 year that they connected over the idea for Terra Optima.

Their unique backgrounds and interests helped inspire Terra Optima. For Wang, his interest in food waste and composting flourished after he started his own mealworm colony as research into a potential protein source for his protein bar company. He was living almost waste-free since he was feeding kitchen scraps to the worms. The experiment with the colony helped him realize the power of natural organisms like mealworms and introduced him to the opportunities of composting.

For Nejman, climate change solutions and sustainability have always been a guiding priority. It’s why he enrolled in the HBA Sustainability Certificate during his time at Ivey. His specific interest in soil and composting was sparked after learning about “Terra Preta,” a dark and fertile soil artificially made by farming communities thousands of years ago in the Amazon through specialized composting. He was inspired by the nature-based ingenuity and prompted to consider how those benefits could be recreated and amplified.

Their entrepreneurial spirits and an overall keenness for science have played a major role in the momentum of Terra Optima, but Nejman and Wang have also drawn on their days in an HBA classroom. They specifically point to the breadth of their Ivey education as an asset when running a new venture. “Every day, I am doing something which was either a data management class or a communications class. Especially with entrepreneurship, you’re piecing together a rudimentary business which requires you to manage all components of it, from accounting to projections to finance to communicating to creating networks – all of these things that we did in the classroom,” explained Dan Nejman.

The pair also explained how their education prepared them to work with a variety of people and to get comfortable presenting to different audiences. This particular skill recently came in handy when the pair successfully presented to the Western Fair District about developing a partnership.

The new partnership will set Terra Optima’s vision into motion by allowing them to test their processes and ideas on a larger scale. Using the facility spaces, land, gardens and greenhouse at the Western Fair District, they will use organic waste from the Western Fair operations to enhance and revitalize surrounding soils and grow produce like mushrooms and various greens. This supports Western Fair’s various agri-food operations and projects, as well as provide cost savings and improved environmental impact.

Partnerships like this is just the beginning for Terra Optima. The pair sees a shifting world around them, one where there is more opportunity for new sustainable business models and more room for creativity and ambitious new ideas. They are grateful for the knowledge that has been accessible to them and encourage current students and others who want to make a difference to take advantage of the events and resources that are available.

“If you’re unsure of where to start, look local: there are often community non-profits or organizations that hold free webinars, in-person events, or volunteer opportunities that can increase your awareness around growing problems, innovative solutions, and offer ways to connect with relevant stakeholders. The knowledge gained from these avenues could inspire your next big idea," suggests Will Wang.

As the world’s population increases, there will be more demand for food and resources but less productive soils make it even harder to meet the needs of everyone, everywhere. By reducing waste, rejuvenating soil, and capturing carbon, Terra Optima hopes to do their part by taking care of this planet and ensuring it can support life for a long time to come.