“Imagine cutting out the reliance on the seasons, on water, land, and transport in food production. Imagine being able to grow extra-nutritious food in a fraction of the time at home, without even having to think about it. This could ultimately spell the end of the global food crisis!”

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.

Hult MBAs Sabrina and Andre at their graduation ceremony in 2015.

“I enrolled onto 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.”

“My careers advisor at Hult helped me to delve deeper into my motivations and I discovered that what I really wanted to do was to make the world better and 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 skillsets and a competitive advantage. “The learnings we took from the Hult Business Challenge 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.”

Gartenzwerg mimics the perfect growing environment.

“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.”

The Gartenzwerg app notifies users when the smart plant needs anything.

“The learnings we took from the Hult Business Challenge were invaluable in researching and understanding our concept for our startup.”

Four months ago, 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. They have just been accepted to the Entrepreneurial Spark accelerator program and hired a Junior Embedded Software Engineer to get their prototype market-ready. They’re now looking for someone with a plants science background, or for partnerships with universities who do R&D in this area. “Now that we have secured seed capital, we’re getting more and more exposure to the outside world. We already have 500 people on our waiting list and have just launched a Seedrs campaign for our next round of investment. Things have really started ramping up and we’re excited about where we are going.”

Find out more about Gartenzwerg: website, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter  and funding campaign.


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Mel Cloney is a staff blogger working in London, and is passionate about the Hult journey. Her writing focuses on faculty, academics, and student and alumni experiences. She’s a food, scuba, and running junkie with a penchant for all things French.