Looking back, Sabrina Palme is amused by her “eureka moment” that summer’s evening in Shanghai. She was studying at Hult International Business School for her MBA and had got chatting to a classmate about hydroponics. That was it—her imagination was sparked. Having always felt that she wanted to make a difference in the world, she couldn’t help thinking this could be something big. So that night over dumplings she floated the concept to fellow Hult MBA, Andre Quintanilha. “When Andre got excited too, I knew we could be onto something. With a head for numbers and logistics, he’s a natural cynic. So when he caught my passion, I knew it wasn’t just me getting carried away!”
But life went on. Sabrina and Andre were half-way through balancing the demands of an intensive one-year MBA program and immersing themselves in Chinese culture and an MBA cohort of over 30 other nationalities. The time flew by; they both graduated, joined the job market, and carried on with daily life. But the hydroponics idea kept tapping away on Sabrina’s shoulder.
“I enrolled in my MBA hoping to find my passion and make a difference in the world. But I still wasn’t sure what that was and I was hoping Hult could help me tap into it” says Sabrina. Peter Hill, her Hult careers advisor in Shanghai, was very patient with her but she couldn’t help feeling she exasperated him with her ever-changing career aspirations, from marketing, to consulting, to entrepreneurialism. “Peter helped me delve deeper into my motivations and I discovered that it didn’t actually matter about the industry, but I wanted to do something to make the world better and to feel I had made a contribution.”
Then, 18 months ago, both living and freelancing in London, Andre and Sabrina decided to go for it. They dedicated all their spare time to developing their hydroponics startup, Gartenzwerg. Having previously worked together to launch their own startup for the Hult Business Challenge as part of their MBA program, they knew they had complementary skill sets and competitive advantage. “The learnings we took from our MBA projects were invaluable in researching and understanding our concept for Gartenzwerg. How do you project sales? How do you estimate the value of your company? The questions we needed to answer were the same. And we had honed our skills of persuasion, utilizing feedback, working as a team, and making decisions in uncertain environments, so we were already half-way there thanks to that experience.”
“We would come home in the evening and start researching prototypes. We tested the concept and had someone testing the technology. The product is very advanced and technical. The whole point is that the consumer doesn’t need to know anything about growing food to make it work because the app runs it for them. But that means that delivering the prototype is a painstaking task of complexity. It is critical to program the right PH levels, light intensity, water requirements, etc., so the testing phase was crucial. We were functioning on about four hours’ sleep a night and dedicating every waking moment to our day jobs, or to the startup. Our office resembled a jungle! But it was exhilarating to be back in such an intense environment.”
A few months later, everything changed when Sabrina and Andre found an angel investor through the Hult alumni network. A Hult Masters in International Business grad whom they knew from their days in Shanghai got in touch to say her partner was looking for investment opportunities. He invested in Gartenzwerg, which meant Sabrina and Andre could start focusing full-time on the startup and securing connections. Shortly after, they participated in the IoT Tribe accelerator program and hired three more members of staff, covering expertise in embedded systems, software engineering, and plants science.
“It’s been incredible to see we’ve been getting more and more exposure to the outside world. We have just launched pre-orders on Indiegogo and we plan to commence worldwide shipping by the end of this year. Earlier this year, we had an exciting new opportunity in the Asian market come in. Andre and I traveled to China to visit manufacturers there, and the fact that we lived a year in Shanghai turned out to be a huge benefit for us. We knew their business customs, understood the cultural differences and knew what things to look out for (especially in terms of IP protection). It was then I realized it wasn‘t just the Hult MBA courses that added value, but also the international exposure of where we did it.”