2022 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Atlas Urban Farms, Babson College (Olin)

Atlas Urban Farms

Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business

Industry: Vertical Farming

Founding Student Name(s): Connor Harbison

Brief Description of Solution: We design and build vertical farming systems for chefs, so they can grow their own food inside their restaurants, save money, deliver fresher meals to their customers, and create a more sustainable food system.

Funding Dollars: $44,000

What led you to launch this venture? It all started on a hike in Wyoming. I was camping in Grand Teton National Park over Labor Day Weekend in 2017, and I ventured into Jackson for a beer after a long day on the trail. There was this big building across the street from Snake River Brewing, all glass and steel with magenta lights inside. That was my first encounter with vertical farming, and it was enough to convince me that this was the future.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Our biggest accomplishment is having a working product on the market that is meeting our customers’ needs. In August 2022, we deployed our first vertical farming system to a restaurant near Boston, and we’ve been growing ever since. Our technology takes time to test, unlike software where you can iterate in a matter of hours. Certainly, there have challenges along the way, like when the reservoir overflowed and we had to do an emergency repair. However, from day 1, the panel did what it was designed to do: grow edible crops in a condensed space using a fraction of the resources compared to traditional agriculture. We’ve continued to iterate and add features per our clients’ requests, and we’re excited to begin offering our solution to a wider range of restaurants and chefs in the days to come.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? My MBA program has been a game changer for my venture. I did a startup before school, which was enough to get me hooked on entrepreneurship, but it also showed me that I didn’t yet have all the skills. I chose classes based on what blind spots I had and the needs of the business. For every single class at Babson, I could take the lessons and apply them to a larger project. This helped keep me motivated, and it also gave me a North Star that all my classes pointed towards.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I’m not sure if there was any one founder who provided motivation, but I will say my inspiration comes from the countless entrepreneurs I worked with during my time in Montana. I think most people assume that a startup has to be a mobile app, has to raise venture capital, and has to be based in Silicon Valley. I worked with some of the scrappiest, most resourceful, and most dedicated founders during my time in the Rocky Mountains. They showed me that entrepreneurship isn’t about shiny slide decks or raising capital; what it’s really about is solving a problem, building a sustainable solution, and most importantly being able to adapt when things don’t work out the way you’d planned.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Designing a Business for Profitability was probably the most influential class. I came into school not knowing any accounting, and I took the financial accounting course as part of my core. I chose to take this managerial accounting class because it sounded like a useful skill to learn. The most valuable lesson I took from it was the way that fixed and variable costs interact with each other – and how you can design your pricing structure to offer better deals for customers that also yield a higher profit margin for the business. Accounting can be dry, but it is absolutely fascinating when you get into it.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Luke Stein has been a mentor to me since the early days of my MBA. He was my finance professor during the MBA core curriculum, and we kept in touch even after I’d moved on from his class. Luke always offers grounded advice, and his background as a finance professor helps me keep the business fundamentals in mind as I continue to grow my business.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? First and foremost, the Babson community has been incredibly supportive, both when I was a student and now that I’m an alumnus. I’m fortunate that our alumni network is so strong in New England, and in Boston in particular, as it gives me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. Beyond that, I have to shout out Branchfood, which is a great organization focused on food ventures. Even before I became a member, the Branchfood team was extraordinarily helpful, connecting me with the right people to help me grow my business. I also want to acknowledge Venture Cafe, a weekly networking event held in CIC Cambridge which always has an interesting group of people.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We envision a world where cities are growing food and feeding their inhabitants. Imagine walking home from work and picking your salad from a living wall. We believe there’s a place for vertical gardening in homes, schools, bars, restaurants, hotels, corporate offices, and more. We can grow fresher, more nutritious food using a fraction of the resources, and grow it where people live, so that we don’t have to ship it thousands of miles from farm to table. It’s a long road ahead, but we are absolutely dedicated to building this new reality.


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