Big Dreams With A Difference

Big Dreams With A Difference

Young entrepreneurs devise innovative solutions for food insecurity, maternity issues, and body aches

December 9, 2020
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What started as an Eagle Scout project has morphed into a way to help people grow their own food almost anywhere.

University of Connecticut senior Christian Heiden, with his brother and dad, started the non-profit Levo International to teach Haitians hydroponic farming. It’s an affordable and sustainable way to fight hunger for people who earn less than $2 per day.

“Farming without soil saves up to 90 percent of the water you would use in traditional farming,” Heiden explains. “It’s a crazy cool system – you can do hydroponics on a simplified level and really help people grow their own food.”

But then COVID-19 hit, and Heiden and the team pivoted to bring their hydroponic growing systems to low-income residents in Connecticut cities by partnering with existing organizations like the Hispanic Health Council. Levo secured grants from The Neag Foundation and The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to bring their Victory Gardens to poor communities in Hartford, New London, and Waterbury.

The Victory Garden is a series of PVC pipes within a wooden frame, designed to hold 24 plants like lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pepper, and herbs that grow without soil in net pots immersed in nutrient-rich water. The system takes up just 5 by 2 feet of space. There were four on the rooftop at Hispanic Health Council in Hartford in the summer of 2020. There’s no weeding or watering, so it only takes about five minutes a day to tend this garden, by keeping a reservoir full of water, putting nutrients in the system, and trimming and maintaining the plants. And the plants reportedly grow faster.

The solar pump attached allows for the water to be pumped through the system on a timer, so there’s no need to worry about manually pumping the water.

“The beauty of our system is that you can set it up almost anywhere,” Heiden says. “It’s all done outdoors with our community partners, who run the gardens with our guidance and distribute the vegetables in the neighborhood.”

Levo is helping address food insecurity – the inability to pay for food – in Hartford, one of the nation’s most food insecure locations. Hartford is also considered a food desert, with a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables readily available, Heiden says.

Heiden is majoring in applied and resource economics at UConn, studying economics as it relates to international development.

Back in 2016 when he was attending Northwest Catholic High School, Heiden proposed building a hydroponic greenhouse for an agency in Haiti as his Eagle Scout project. Well, the Scouts were overwhelmed by the idea and thought it too dangerous, so Heiden ended up building the greenhouse at his high school.

“I like to think I’ve been entrepreneurial since I was a little kid,” Heiden recalls. “The turning point was when our 6th grade teacher’s son told us about working in an orphanage in Ghana. Since then, I’ve wanted to work with developing countries.”

Heiden’s scoutmaster had hydroponics in his backyard, having built them in the Dominican Republic.

“We thought Haiti had a greater need,” Heiden explains. “There are high levels of poverty and opportunities to solve a lot of different problems.”

In July, 2016, Heiden, then only 16 years old, traveled to Haiti with his dad, Bill and brother, Nate to build a demonstration greenhouse on the grounds of Many Hands for Haiti, a faith based non-profit organization in Pignon that helps Haitians by providing education, agriculture, medical assistance, and safe homes. That demonstration greenhouse evolved into the Babylon system.

“Once we got down there, we saw how much we could do and it snowballed and we continued working on a solution,” Heiden says.

Levo International has installed 30 systems in Haiti to date.

Because of the coronavirus, Heiden has not been able to travel, but hopes to resume in early 2021.

In addition to the Babylon and the Victory Garden, Levo produces a “bokit” system, (the Haitian Creole word for bucket, showing that it’s possible to grow lettuce or spinach in a simple five-gallon bucket with a lid.

Helping women of color

If a garden is a solution to food insecurity, can an app on your phone improve your health? Three Yale University seniors say, most definitely, yes.

Mia Jackson, Alexandra McCraven, and Chika Ogbejesi teamed up to create Zoula, an app dedicated to improving health outcomes in Black mothers by connecting them to resources for information and support. The trio took second place for their idea last winter at the annual Healthcare Hackathon sponsored by Yale’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology. With $1,500 of prize money in hand, they set about creating the app that is now up and running in the beta testing phase. (See more at joinzoula.com.)

“Black women are not always focused on, not always heard,” said Ogbejesi, who plans to go to medical school after working for a couple of years. “People are unsure about where to find information. We hope to be able to combat misconceptions. We wanted to create a space for women of color to get knowledge they need.”

The app is chock full of information on childbirth, breastfeeding, mental health, and doulas – the birth attendants who provide emotional, physical and educational support to women before, during, and after they give birth.  There’s a forum for women to connect with one another and share information and tips. Users can listen to the Zoula podcast as well.

“The app emulates a lot of work that doulas do,” said Ogbejesi. “We added the ‘Z’ because it’s virtual, like Zoom. It seemed like the name that stuck.”

More than 200 people from around the world participated in the hackathon. Teams were challenged to come up with a product or resource around the theme of social determinants of health. Over three days, teams worked to create their product or service in preparation for their four-minute Shark Tank-type presentation to judges.

The three women were inspired by their classes at Yale in developing Zoula. McCraven, for example, took a course in women in medicine.

“My mom is an obstetrician and I wrote a paper on maternal mortality in the Black community,” she says. “It was the perfect match for me.” She plans to apply to law school after doing a few years of public service work.

Jackson took a class in sickness and health implications of slavery and oppression, where she learned about health disparities for Black women.

“Black women with a graduate degree have higher infant mortality rates than white women who have a high school diploma,” says Jackson, who hopes to continue building technologies that can accelerate healthcare accessibility.

Right now, a handful of users are testing the app, which is also being reviewed by medical advisors. Once it’s debugged, the group plans to partner with community organizations and hospitals to recruit more women to use Zoula.

Pain, pain go away

When people think about entrepreneurs, they pay attention to the creator of the product. But every great product needs someone to promote and sell it, or else the public never hears about it. Kyle Fitzpatrick, 32, who grew up in Litchfield and now lives in Woodbury, drives sales and marketing for The Feel Good Lab, a start-up maker of an all-natural pain relief cream.

The FDA-registered cream contains turmeric, a well-known anti-inflammatory, as well as arnica, devil’s claw, and a host of other natural herbs and natural ingredients. The active ingredient is menthol. Many people use ibuprofen or other oral medications to treat pain, but those have to pass through the gut before reaching the pain and may cause unwanted side effects. A transdermal cream can be applied right at the source of the pain.

The product was developed back in 2007 by compounding pharmacist and functional medicine practitioner Gene Gresh of Vernon.

“Gene is in it for the science,” Fitzpatrick says. “He loves helping people but didn’t have aspirations to grow.”

Enter Gene’s son, Ryan, who convinced his dad to launch the company in 2016 with monies raised from friends and family. Ryan Gresh invited UConn friends Fitzpatrick and C.J. Forse over to his apartment to try a bunch of popular pain relief ointments.

Anyone who’s ever used Bengay knows it can smell, well, medicinal.

“I was honestly gagging at the smell and said, ‘How do people use this stuff?’ At the time, I was in sales and marketing at Red Bull. We left our jobs and started applying our skills to this business and never looked back,” Fitzpatrick recalls.

Initially, the group’s members worked out of an office in New Haven but have since moved to UConn Health’s Technology Incubation Program in Farmington to work alongside other biotech startups. The Feel Good Lab has received a $200,000 from the Connecticut Department of Economic Community Development’s Small Business Express program and a $100,000 equity investment from the UConn Innovation Fund.

The signature pain cream, as well as a sports recovery lotion are sold through the company website, and on Amazon as well as through physical therapy offices and chiropractors.

Although the company has partnerships with Target, CVS, and other large retailers, it’s not yet in those stores in Connecticut, but that’s coming. The Feel Good Lab also plans to develop a cream containing CBD that will be ready for distribution soon.

Fitzpatrick’s advice for people thinking of developing a new product?

“Don’t be afraid that someone will steal your idea. Take the first step of getting the product out there,” he said. “You have to drive it. It takes three times the amount of time you think it will. You will get beaten up. The execution is oftentimes more difficult than you expect. It’s a lot of work to launch a product from nothing, but it’s really fun.”

COVID-19 has forced numerous businesses to close. But at least one expert thinks the pandemic will spur innovation.

“I often think that in times of crisis, we see the greatest outbreak of entrepreneurship,” says David Tomczyk, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University.

Young entrepreneurs can get a leg up from organizations like CT Next, Connecticut Innovations, and the Angel Investors Forum. Although the state has a high tax rate overall, towns are particularly eager for new businesses as a way of creating revenue.

“I’m optimistic,” Tomczyk says. “Connecticut is ripe for opportunity.”

Alix Boyle is a freelance writer and marketer who covers health, women’s issues and business. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and exuberant rescue dog, Sophie.

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