Microgreen business provides insight into student entrepreneurship at Cal Poly

Casual roommates in the Cal Poly residence halls may be considered close friends after spending a year together—but even fewer roommates become business partners. Business junior Emmanuel Rivera-Romo and senior public health major Ethan Tse started out as strangers but now run a microgreen startup together.

The two were able to start a successful pursuit from their apartment to grow microgreens and sell them. The two felt driven to make a positive change on their campus, so they began gathering the necessary resources to make it happen. Integris, a health organization, describes microgreens as young seedlings of vegetables and herbs that contain increased nutritional values.

The team currently has no campus space to grow their business, which will provide local microgreens to their colleagues, whether it’s an indoor classroom or an agricultural unit.

Tse said their shared passion for agribusiness was fueled by adrive to create positive change on Cal Poly’s campus.

The microgreen venture has succeeded in part thanks to support from faculty and students and interest from local restaurants such as Guisseppe’s Cucina Rustica and NoVo.

Tse said the growth of his business has surprised him.

“[It went from] two boys of almost more than ten people who have not yet come to our meetings but have expressed a lot of interest in bringing their projects, their ideas and their influence to our business,” Tse said.

Tse credits much of the venture’s success to the team’s advisors in the College of Business, Department of Bioresources and Agricultural Engineering, and Professors Thomas M. Katona and Dr. Kuwahara. Tse said these two professors helped Rivera-Romo and him develop a business model to launch their business professionally.

Once Tse and Rivera-Romo started with that help, their project became Innovation Quest. As described by Rivera-Romo, Innovation Quest was a Cal Poly-hosted event where students with startups compete for funding from investors.

“It was a huge experience for us,” Rivera-Romo said. “I think this kind of experience can happen once in a lifetime.”

Although the microgreen business became an Innovation Quest finalist, it did not win.

However, Tse and Rivera-Romero quickly hit the ground running on a potential business venture. After making progress with their Innovation Quest participation and gaining interest from Cal Poly and the greater San Luis Obispo community, Tse and Rivera-Romo sought help from the Cal Poly Corporation.

“I want to be a partnership so that my plants can be part of the Cal Poly product catalog {which was created by agriculture students}, but the students have more control over where the funding goes,” said Tse when describing the desired impact he wants to have on his business. Tse describes how he wants to work with Cal Poly to fully serve his community, rather than feeding on campus as a corporation.

“I want most of it to go back to the students, less to the school, because frankly, [the effort] were the students.

According to Cal Poly’s 2018 Basic Needs Report, 27% of Cal Poly students experience food insecurity. Tse believes there could be “tremendous potential to correct this widespread disparity of basic unmet needs” if student-run businesses were more strongly supported.

This microgreen startup aims to validate the power of students to create positive change in their communities.

“I think our project has the potential to help other neighborhoods that have trouble accessing healthy vegetables. I think that’s something we can bring to the table, and so do a lot of these green startups,” Tse said.

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