Seeding Commercial Success

Terp Start-Ups Reflect Growing Desire for Healthy Food Options

IN THE SPIRIT OF "THE SHOW MUST GO ON," students in the 2020 AgEnterprise Challenge pushed forward despite obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual "Shark Tank"-style competition designed to promote student innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture, natural resources, and environmental sustainability switched over to a virtual format this year in order for a winner to be crowned.

On the strength of their unique seed pods designed to grow three pounds of microgreens (edible baby veggies) a week, the student team Sow Co (formerly called Munch) was selected as this year’s winner.

“The credit really goes to the students who were able to collaboratively work with their teams and submit videos during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history,” said Cedric Nwafor, innovation program coordinator with AGNR. “It was truly incredible for them to rise above the circumstances and meet the challenge of continuing on in the competition.”

By winning the top prize, Sow Co will receive up to $30,000 in seed funding to help scale up and commercialize their product from F³Tech, a prominent tech accelerator and part of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center. Intended uses of the seed funds include customer discovery, technology validation, market validation, and general start-up expenses. Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit also provided sponsorship funds to the competition.

“We believe that everyone has the right to provide for themselves,” said Jacques Marais ’20, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and Sow Co team member. “More people are opting into healthy, organic, and sustainable diets right now because they want to get away from mass produced foods. We are honored to have not only won this competition, but to have gained valuable entrepreneurial knowledge from campus mentors and experts.”

Other features that helped push Sow Co to the top include a wall-mounted circular design, full automation, and mobile technology for easy use. Marais estimates it can grow enough to feed one person their daily greens. It is also built to be a truly sustainable product, eliminating unnecessary food miles and excessive storage time.

“Simply put: fresh vegetables from the store are not that fresh,” said Marais. “California produces most of the vegetables grown in the United States. They’re shipped across the country in gas guzzling trucks to sit in a refrigerator at a distribution center for months before being shipped to the grocery store. Just by eliminating the refrigeration process and gas, our product is far more sustainable.”

Another exciting aspect of this year’s competition featured the Audience Choice Award. Since there was no in-person audience to vote for their favorite team, the college opened up the voting process online. The winner, the AGNR student-led team Color Flower Waffles, received $1,000 by receiving the most votes among some 250 individuals who voted through AGNR’s website.

Color Flower Waffles are gluten-free and packed with fruits and vegetables. They were inspired by one of their classmates who, confined by having most major allergies, struggles to find delicious and convenient products. Their solution is an affordable and tasty frozen waffle free of many major allergens while retaining the fun and convenience of a traditional frozen waffle.

“The trends right now are very focused on foods being whole and natural, which is great, but they are very generic terms that could mean anything,” said Kaitlyn Davey ’20, Color Flower Waffles team member from the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. “We wanted to make something that still tasted good but had those whole foods, and we wanted to show people that a little bit of color could be a good thing. Food dyes like Red 40 aren’t healthy, so we tried to bring in the natural colors and advertise it well so people know it’s made from fruits and veggies.”

This marked the fourth year of the competition, and Nwafor sees big things on the horizon.“This year, we focused on expanding the competition beyond AGNR to the entire University of Maryland student community,” said Nwafor. “Moving forward, we want students to know that if they have ideas for agricultural and environmental innovation, we are the group to work with.”