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Published: November 08, 2017

Students, Alumni Offer One Solution to Sustainability: Just Grow

Spartan Accelerator Series: A focus on the current student and recent alumni startups that are part of the Spartan Accelerator program.

University of Tampa students and alumni are teaching sixth through eighth graders about sustainability without ever setting foot in the classroom. Instead, they are leaving it to the fish.

Just Grow, started by two UT alumni and now driven by a group of six students and alumni (plus about 26 interns from UT and the University of South Florida) is a company that produces indoor gardens that feed and clean themselves. Their first creation is Malawi, an 11-by-22-inch vertical aquaponic ecosystem named for Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Africa near Mozambique, where Just Grow’s founder, Djimo Serodio ’15, grew up.

In 25 middle school classrooms in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, students have been caring for their Malawi prototypes with their teachers, who were selected from a list of more than 50 interested educators. The aim is to test the functionality of the systems along with utilizing the educational curriculum designed by the Just Grow team, which also includes a professional advisory board and a sister operation, the nonprofit organization Just Learn.

The system, which includes a two-tiered structure with the plants sitting on top of the aquarium, is an example of how plants grow without the use of fertilizers and instead with the help of the fish.

“In my eyes, aquaponics is a very beautiful glimpse into what sustainability in food production looks like,” said Serodio, who earned an entrepreneurship degree and is passionate about innovating the way food is produced, as he feels it’s the biggest contributor to climate change. “I would like to raise awareness around this problem but also provide solutions. It’s hard to innovate on a large scale, but I think reducing that scale and multiplying it by mass adoption, at least we’ll raise awareness but hopefully engage and inspire change.”

The Just Grow team is already starting to make an impact. They host more than two dozen interns from UT and from the University of South Florida’s engineer school. Ed Williams ’18, of London, started as an intern and has since taken on a part-time position as Just Grow’s director of business development. One of the biggest advantages, academically, has been seeing the concepts he is learning in the classroom be used directly in his work with Just Grow.

“I was shocked with just how much stuff I’ve learned and is taught in the College of Business does apply in genuine real-world interaction with business, even down to managerial accounting,” said Williams, an economics major. “I never thought I’d use that in my life, but I come in and I’m working on the break even [prices] for the products, I’m working on all the numerical values that need to be generated in order for us to have an understanding. I didn’t quite understand how my studies were going to apply so directly until I came into that real-world experience with Just Grow.”

As a student at UT, Bekah Vigil ’16, who graduated with a degree in environmental science, was highly involved in PEACE, coordinating large events and student service trips. She said it gave her crucial skills for building a strong team for Just Grow and creating a rich learning environment for interns.

“It was this fascinating opportunity to get the students really excited about what we were doing but also construct this really positive learning experience while building the company at the same time,” said Vigil, Just Grow’s chief operating officer.

Just Grow is one of a handful of startups in the Lowth Entrepreneurship Center’s Spartan Accelerator, an on-campus incubator connecting students to a network of resources. Serodio and Vigil said the program has been crucial to their success.

Lori Benson McRae, associate professor of biology, helps pair UT students majoring in environmental science or minoring in sustainability with internships with Just Grow as “integrative approaches to sustainable agriculture are hugely valuable.” But their location in the entrepreneurship center is just as valuable.

“It is such a great connection for students. Those who don't have cars are normally at a disadvantage for interning, but because they have a beautiful workspace on campus, it is easy to involve students,” McRae said. “Also, it is a great connection for networking as the group contains UT alumni who have a passion for helping other students and alumni succeed.”

Just Grow launched its crowdfunding campaign Nov. 6 with pre-orders of Malawi starting at $249. They hope to deliver early next year then be open for full operation.