The Next New Venture: A Fresh Way to Farm

Entrepreneurship competition top winners receive more than $60,000 for environmentally friendly local produce.

New Venture Competition
The HomeGrown Farms team pose with founding sponsor Ann Scott and competition director Lex McCusker. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
April 20, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

HomeGrown Farms may provide a glimpse of the future of farming. And while it is certainly green, it is not the rolling acres that the word “farm” usually connotes.

Rather than the wide sky and ranging fields of the bucolic imagination, HomeGrown exists—like a leafy, high-tech Narnia—inside a 320-square-foot shipping container in New Jersey. Kale, spinach, arugula, fresh herbs and other greens grow year-round under LED lights in baths of nutrient-rich water.

The farmers are more likely to wear lab coats than muddy overalls.

All this results in a farming model that uses 90 percent less water and 80 percent less fertilizer than traditional farms, said Parth Chauhan, founder and CEO of HomeGrown, which won big at the George Washington University’s New Venture Competition finals Tuesday night.

Since it is a closed system safe from insects and contaminants, HomeGrown uses no herbicides or pesticides and produces no environmentally dangerous runoff, said Mr. Chauhan, who graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2013. He grew up in the New Jersey community where HomeGrown now is based and has known teammates and fellow farmers Raghav Garg and Zeel Patel since middle school. Pranav Kaul, the fourth founder and a senior at ESIA, met Mr. Chauhan on a dance team at GW.

In operation since April, HomeGrown provides job opportunities in the community and access to fresh produce in areas where fresh, healthy food may not be easily available.

A hyper-local distribution network reduces the distance customers’ food travels to as little as 30 miles. It is also unprecedentedly efficient, the founders said.

“What would normally take a football-field sized area to [yield], we can actually do in a space smaller than this stage,” said Mr. Chauhan, indicating the stage of the Jack Morton Auditorium where he and his team presented.

For its vision and practical success, HomeGrown took first place overall and nine supplemental cash and in-kind prizes at the competition, totaling $60,000 in cash and more than $74,000 total value.

“[HomeGrown] has the great combination of meeting a need, resonating with people and they’ve worked out the technology. They’ve engineered a successful system,” said Lex McCusker, director of the New Venture Competition. “And like every good social venture, it holds up financially as well.”

Ventures addressing social needs made a strong showing in the finals, with three of the four overall top-placing teams, including HomeGrown, coming from the GWupstart Social Innovation Lab prize track.

Mental Health Promotion, which took second prize, is a nonprofit that integrates mental health education into existing high school health classes across the country.

The Rooftop Tea Company, which empowers women tea growers in the Middle East and gives fair trade consumers full transparency about the provenance of their brew, took fourth.

Social entrepreneurship has been such a vibrant category at GW, in fact, that contestants also have seen success outside of New Venture.

Fourth-place finisher Cheyenne Tessier, a junior at ESIA, won second place and $15,000 at the Richard Barrentine Values and Ventures Competition for her Rooftop Tea Company.

“Our teams are doing a great job blending business sense and meeting a social need, which tells a compelling story,” said Melanie Fedri, coordinator of social entrepreneurship at the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. As director of GWupstart, she designed workshops for and personally mentored the teams focused on social enterprise.

Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center, agreed, saying the teams succeed because they “have social good as their outcome.”

“They’re able to take practical ideas, practical concepts, and put them toward a compelling real-world need and demonstrate exactly what they’ve been learning,” Ms. Cohen said.


 

“Like every good social venture, it holds up financially as well." 

- New Venture Competition Director Lex McCusker on HomeGrown Farms, which took home almost $75,000 in cash and in-kind prizes.


The New Venture Competition, now in its eighth year, is organized by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship within the Office of the Vice President for Research and is the fifth largest collegiate entrepreneurship competition in the United States. This year, awardees took home $130,000 in cash and $140,000 in in-kind prizes.

The Tuesday night ceremony included a keynote by Gary Swart, general partner with Polaris Partners and former CEO of oDesk, now Upwork, which connects freelancers with employers. Retracing his path from manufacturing to IBM to software and now venture capital, Mr. Swart emphasized that some of his most valuable career lessons have come from failure.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” he advised the audience.

Fadi Ghandour, B.A. ’81, founder and vice chairman of Middle East shipping giant Aramex, received the Distinguished Entrepreneurial Achievement Award from the GW Entrepreneurial Round Table (GWERT). Mr. Ghandour, who joked that he was “proof that a C student can actually win,” discussed the “vibrant” future of the Middle East in the new digital economy.

Onstage after the ceremony, the HomeGrown team stood looking happy and a little dazed at the newest development in their shared history. Already potential investors were approaching them, handing off business cards and urging the team to keep in touch.

HomeGrown’s next step, with the help of their winnings, will be to invest in a new LED system and start expansion to a warehouse-sized space. The four team members plan to quit their current jobs and focus on HomeGrown full time.

If the trajectory of last year’s winning venture is any indication, the possibilities are enormous. The food waste reducing MEANS Database was working in five states when it took first prize at the competition in 2015. It now has partners in 42 states and the District of Columbia.

“We knew we’d put in a lot of work, but this is unbelievable,” Mr. Chauhan said.

Below is a list of all New Venture winners.

Cash Prizes

1st Place ($35,000)
HomeGrown Farms

2nd Place ($15,000)
Mental Health Promotion

3rd Place ($10,000)
Represently

4th Place ($5,000)
Rooftop Tea Company

Blank Rome’s Best Undergraduate ($10,000)
Mental Health Promotion

GWUpstart’s Best Non-Profit Social Venture ($7,500)
Mental Health Promotion

GWUpstart’s Best For-Profit Social Venture ($7,500)
HomeGrown Farms

Quinn Prize for Best International Venture ($7,500)
Rooftop Tea Company

Kulkarni Prize for Best Technology-based Venture ($7,500)
HomeGrown Farms

Sustainable Energy and Infrastructure Prize ($5,000)
HomeGrown Farms

Quality Support, Inc.’s Veterans Prize ($5,000)
Micro-Housing for Millenials

Audience Choice Award ($5,000)
HomeGrown Farms

Honorable Mention Pool ($5,000)
Abdicare, Project Dream Miles, Propisor, RightDate, SeamlessColor, Staff U

 

In-Kind Prizes

Audienti, platform access and onboarding package (valued at $24,000)
RightDate

General Assembly, course and Front Row access (valued at $17,800)
HomeGrown Farms, Mental Health Promotion, Represently

Blank Rome, legal services (valued at $15,000)
SeamlessColor, Abdicare, HomeGrown Farms

WeWork, office space and membership for six months (valued at $14,400)
Staff U

AdvantEdge, co-working space for six months (valued at $13,000)
Project DreamMiles

Hera Hub, co-working membership for six months (valued at $12,000)
Rooftop Tea Company

GenB MVP, development and execution plan support (valued at $10,000)
MyPrefCard

Virginia Science and Technology Campus, co-working space for six months (valued at $8,000)
SmartBridge

MakeOffices, membership and co-working space for six months (valued at $7,600)
Represently

TechShop, class packages (valued at $4,500)
HomeGrown Farms, Mental Health Promotion, Represently, Rooftop Tea Company

Eastern Foundry, co-working space for 12 months (valued at $4,200)
SuperEagle Solar

Cove, free month planning (valued at $3,115)
All finalists

iStrategy Labs, custom lab consultation (valued at $3,000)
Propisor

Social Driver, half day pop-up innovation lab (valued at $3,000)
Mental Health Promotion

Arjuna Solutions, startup session (valued at $2,500)
HomeGrown Farms

99 Designs, graphic design services (valued at $1,200)
HomeGrown Farms, Mental Health Promotion, Represently

Marie Rudolph, Military Bowl tickets (valued at $500)
Micro-Housing for Millenials