Urbavore is an ag-tech startup that aims to market low-cost, highly efficient home garden systems that are designed to both improve food security and reduce the environmental impact of food production. Middlebury Institute alumni Kenji Tabery MAIEP ’16, Janna Ratzlaff MAIEP ’15, Hesham AlSaati MBA/MAIEP ’17, and Flynn Pollard MPA/MAIEP ’17 are the team behind Urbavore. Tabery recently spent a few minutes filling us in on the group’s fascinating venture.
How quickly did the team realize that your class project might have a life beyond the classroom?
The focus of the class where Urbavore started was water conservation. Given that growing one tomato requires 3.3 gallons of water, and that California grows on average 90 percent of all U.S. staple fruits and vegetables—and recently experienced a major drought—we knew from the start that if we could figure out even one small solution to current cultivation methods, it could potentially have a huge impact.
As far as validating our business concept, the big milestone was the Ag Tech Summit in Salinas in spring 2016. The Salinas Valley is known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” and the Ag Tech summit gathers farmers and growers, agricultural specialists, non-profits, and everyone else in the ag landscape. We presented our concept to a group of 40 people and a panel of six judges, and were awarded Best Startup Idea of the conference.
Were there particular resources here at the Institute that you found especially helpful when you were first getting started?
Professor Jeff Langholz helped create a platform for students to launch and validate their ideas, and also encouraged students to pitch at the Monterey Bay Startup Competition, where we made it to the semifinal round. Those were critical first steps for refining our concept and assessing its viability and feasibility. We also had professors in different departments providing ad hoc advice and suggestions; having those experts and practitioners in the room giving us an hour of their time was invaluable at the onset. The staff at the Center for Social Impact Learning were also great cheerleaders and supporters.
Were there any particular keys to your success in moving the idea forward after graduation?
The biggest thing was communication. Once we’d all committed to keeping the project moving forward, we set up a virtual collaboration channel on Slack, which simplified the communication flow and helped us organize and collect those thoughts. We also tackled important conversations about decision-making up front that helped keep everyone on board and focused on reaching our goals every month.
As a startup enterprise, what do you feel like your biggest obstacles have been?
One is physical proximity—we’re now predominantly a virtual team, with two of us located here in the Monterey Bay/Santa Cruz area and the others remote. It presents inherent challenges, but also opportunities in the sense that it helps us in tackling another challenge—the need to expand our networks beyond the Monterey area.
The biggest barrier is financing. Some startup ideas, like software, have very low capital costs, but we’re a hardware startup. We were fortunate to be able to connect with folks at UCSC and we keep looking for those opportunities to fuel our operational growth as we move forward.
What are your goals for Urbavore for the next two years?
Part of the UCSC partnership is to beta-test our prototype system at two food access sites on that campus this year to be a consistent resource for students on food stamps.
After we test these prototypes in the field, we’ll assess and make adjustments to the prototype by next spring and summer and hopefully launch a one-year pilot project either with UCSC or with the Food Bank for Monterey County. If the pilot is successful there, the Food Bank of Monterey County is part of a national network of food banks across the country called Feeding America where we hope to expand our services and impact.
In the meantime, we’ve been accepted into the Santa Cruz Works accelerator program, which is a six-month program for new tech startups that provides financing, executive mentorship, networking opportunities with investors and leaders in the field, and will help recalibrate our organizational business plan as we move forward. It’s another exciting step forward for us.