My name is Danielle Dozier. Like many first-time entrepreneurs, I have no formal training in entrepreneurship – but here I am, doing all sorts of things – that I never imagined. It started in college with a desire to test if hydroponic production methods would be accepted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My colleagues and I built a small-scale greenhouse in my colleague’s family compound and used PVC and a heat gun to create a Do-It-Yourself hydroponic tower. We grew lettuce plants and attempted to gain market acceptance. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. Sourcing materials was difficult, expensive, and the native language translated hydroponics to “chemical plants.” In short, the project failed and I went back to college.
After graduating with a degree in Horticulture from the University of Arkansas, I started interning for a local hydroponic farm. I told the owners about my Ethiopia project in passing, but they got excited, “Can you build these vertical towers for us? We are running out of production space and would love to put our North side-wall to work.” Together we built about 20 or more of these systems, slapped them onto the wall, and watched them grow. It worked, but it was not perfect. The PVC towers leaked, splashed, and became brittle over time. This internship, though fun, was unpaid, so I had to find a job. Eight months later, I was hired by a private investor to build a tomato farm in Texarkana TX.
Don’t get lost here. The concept of a vertical tower design that helped hydroponic farmers use existing “dead-space” was starting to consume me. Why had this not been done before? Why are hydroponic systems so competitive that farmers have to choose only one to maximize their space? Why is it so difficult to find a hydroponic system at an affordable cost? While managing the tomato farm project in Texas, I started to visit the local universities and ask questions. I cannot draw a stick figure, so I paid an architect student to draft my first concept of what this “ideal-dead-space-using-tower” would look like.
On one of the university visits, I learned about the Small Business Innovative Research or SBIR competitive grant program. The professor at Texas A&M mentioned that the Small Business and Technology Development Centers helped with preparing such grants. After a phone call with Rebecca Todd at the SBTDC office in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was encouraged to try even though I had never written a grant. This decision changed my life. Though the success rate is 15%, with the help of the ASBTDC, I won. The USDA SBIR Phase I competitive grant of $100,000 was awarded to someone who could not even draw a stick-figure.
That award was given in 2017. So much has happened since then, and I want to share my story with those who feel unqualified to try something new. If you have an idea but question your ability to bring it to life, it is ok. There are people and resources that will help you get to the next step.
Next quarter I will share more about the Phase I project and how my inexperience resulted in a costly mistake that almost railroaded the project to near failure.