'Bloom' team pitch for trading platform for produce farmers wins Ag Springboard

April 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The "Bloom" student team won the $7,500 top prize for its pitch of a mobile application to connect small produce farmers in Kenya directly with wholesale buyers, during the final round of the Ag Springboard student business pitch contest April 1.

Team "Extrigate" won the $2,500 Ag Springboard second-place prize with its pitch to provide affordable irrigation wells to smallholder farmers in Kenya using borehole drilling technology.

The competition was sponsored by the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Bloom and Extrigate are solving critical issues for smallholder farmers in Kenya with solutions and business plans that are compelling," said Hunter Swisher, an Ag Springboard finals judge and CEO of Phospholutions, a State College company that sells solutions such as soil amendments and remediation to reduce the environmental impact of phosphorus.

Four finalist teams pitched judges through the morning then reconvened later in the day for the announcement of winners — all for the first time via Zoom and broadcast via Facebook Live due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual competition awards $10,000 for business and nonprofit solutions in the agricultural sciences. Each team must include a student from the College of Agricultural Sciences. The four finalist teams also included "Drop In Fresh," with a venture to provide local farm produce to college students, and "Savor Smoothies," pitching a concept to produce fruit and vegetable smoothies from lower-quality produce often discarded as food waste.

"Seeing students take initiative with their ideas and grow is the best part of Ag Springboard," said Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar. Gagnon organizes and moderates the competition and coaches teams.

"Although a tough decision, Team Bloom had the strongest presentation, with a sound business model and a well-thought-out, go-to-market strategy," said Swisher, a 2016 plant science graduate of the College of Agricultural Sciences. In 2016, Swisher pitched Phospholutions in the Ag Springboard competition as a finalist.

Bloom's team members said they all were excited to have won and to put in motion their next step, which is to develop and start testing the product — a mobile platform to improve smallholder farmers' profitability by directly connecting farmers with wholesale buyers, eliminating the need for a third-party broker.

Bloom's team members are Sarah Turk, of Downingtown, and Chanpreet Singh, of Chester Springs, both senior computer science majors; Rachael Owens, of Reading, a sophomore computer science major; Nicholas Roselli, of Syosset, New York, a senior journalism major; and Anna Abernathy, of Easton, a senior environmental resource management major in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Bloom has been adapting its plans to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. A planned trip to Kenya in May has been postponed until next winter break.

While it's challenging to replace in-person, on-the-ground work, said Bloom team members, they view the pandemic's travel restrictions as an opportunity to figure out how to operate exclusively digitally, said Singh.

"It's an interesting way for us to develop a plan we always had to develop anyway," he said.

Bloom team member Rachael Owens said that as she helped her team pitch from a computer upstairs in her family's home, her parents watched downstairs on Facebook. Now, her parents know a lot more about the project she's been working on so hard lately, she said.

The team plans to launch within a year. It has worked on its project for two years and has talked with 100 wholesalers and farmers.

"Our platform gives smallholder farmers a reason to be hopeful about their future selling produce," said Singh.

Ag Springboard 2020 - Team Extrigate

Team Extrigate took the $2,500 second prize in the Ag Springboard 2020 student business pitch contest for its well-drilling service that uses borehole technology to provide affordable irrigation to smallholder farmers in Kenya. Clockwise from upper right: Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Catherine McAllister, Juliet Mejias, Josh Shoemaker, Chris Giura and Mary Fraijii.

IMAGE: Innovation and Entrepreneurship program, College of Agricultural Sciences

The students on the second-place Extrigate team also are excited to move forward on their plans.

"We can't wait to get back to work," said Mary Fraijii, of Pylesville, Maryland, a sophomore studying chemical engineering. Teammate Catherine McAllister, of West Chester, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering, said the $2,500 in funding would allow the team to put its plans into motion and start making a positive impact to address the problem.

In addition to Fraijii and McAllister, the Extrigate team members are Chris Giura, of Pittsburgh, and Josh Shoemaker, of Palmyra — both seniors in engineering science — and Juliet Mejias, of Philadelphia, a College of Ag Sciences junior studying community, environment and development with a focus on international development.

The team is taking aim at the problem of irrigating crops grown by smallholder, Kenyan farmers, with a drill technique and well-drilling service that uses compressed air to reach below the water table. Most small-holder farmers rely on rainwater for irrigation because deep well-drilling has been too expensive, the team said in its pitch.

Crop production can fall by 50% due to lack of sufficient water. So, the Extrigate team told judges, providing an alternative to rainwater irrigation equates to reducing risk for farmers. Its business model and plans promised several benefits: increased crop production and income for farmers, decreased contamination of food supplies, and employment for dozens of people.

"We have the ability to enact change not only with the farmers we are helping but also with the Kenyan people we are employing," said Mejias, during Extrigate's pitch.

About Ag Springboard

In its eighth year, the Ag Springboard student business pitch contest teaches pitching skills and entrepreneurial thinking to students in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Students are coached and mentored in how to develop an idea for a solution in the ag sciences into a promising venture.

Twenty-two student teams registered for the 2020 competition. In round one, 12 teams submitted a short video, and round-one judges selected four finalist teams.

Finalist teams typically pitch a panel of judges during a day-long event on campus, with an awards banquet in the evening. Due to Penn State's closure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was conducted virtually over Zoom and shared via Facebook Live. The banquet has been postponed until the fall.

The recorded video of the finalist pitches and the announcement of the winners can be viewed online at the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program's Facebook page.

This year's finalist judges were Dan Azzara, Alan R. Warehime Professor of Agribusiness and director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Bill Donley, chair of college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation advisory board and retired CEO of Tangent Rail Corp.; Linsey Herman, head of the Innovation Lab at Factory LLC; Angie Raimondi, ecommerce manager at Blue Diamond Growers; and Hunter Swisher, CEO of Phospholutions LLC.

The contest was sponsored by Dan and Wendy Azzara, whose support allows this competition to be an annual event. Earl and Kay Harbaugh and the College of Agricultural Sciences also provide support for the program.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 10, 2020