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Sowing the seeds of an award-winning business

New agriculture product earns first-place finish at Quebec Entrepreneurship Competition thanks to District 3
April 22, 2013
By Laurence Miall

Justin Moody-Corbett (left) and James Bambara | Photo by Concordia University

Two Concordia students, James Bambara and Justin Moody-Corbett, who are seeking to launch a new company called VerAvenir, have clinched first place in the technological innovations category of the entrepreneurship competition, Concours québécois en entrepreneuriat (Quebec Entrepreneurship Competition).

They won $1,000 and the opportunity to compete at the regional level. Their achievement is testament to their hard work and talent as well the growing strength of Concordia’s District 3, a platform for entrepreneurship, where they were provided with advice, guidance and encouragement.

“He asked a lot of difficult questions,” says Moody-Corbett, about the District 3 mentorship VerAvenir received from business leader Giovanni Forte. “We had to make our ideas more focused.”

When Bambara and Moody-Corbett approached Forte, they had a product concept that had already gone through about 100 prototypes. Their product aims to reduce the cost of growing plants by using an inflatable design that contains and controls the climate around the plants. Forte encouraged them to think in a highly focused way about their market offering.

“He helped us streamline the selling points of this product,” says Bambara.

What brings these students together — Bambara from the PhD program in building engineering and Moody-Corbett from the undergraduate program in biology — is a shared passion for a product that delivers superior growing conditions with reduced energy needs, and at a lower initial cost. Earlier this year, VerAvenir’s crop production system produced an excellent yield of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and sunflowers in a test conducted on McGill University’s Macdonald Campus. The students have applied for an international patent on the technology and now that they’ve proved the concept, the next step is to demonstrate its benefits to potential buyers. This will take considerable investment, something else District 3 mentorship could be useful in helping to obtain.

Concordia alumnus Forte is a successful entrepreneur in the information technology and telecommunications industry. He founded and was formerly the CEO of Trellia, a leader in cloud-based Mobile Device Management (MDM). He sold the lucrative business in 2011. Forte first met Bambara and Moody-Corbett last fall and says he immediately saw they had put a lot of thought into the product.

“Sometimes, it’s the product that speaks for itself; sometimes it’s the inventors; sometimes it’s both,” he says. “In this case, it was both.”

One of the challenges at the early stage was that the product’s possible uses were vast. It took some work to zero in on potential market segments. Forte advised the students to pick one market at first — commercial growers — and has helped steer the students forward with some clear goals in mind.

When asked what he thinks is vital for business success, Forte says it’s a range of factors, but encapsulates the key ingredients. “It’s the sweet spot of creativity and strategy,” he says. “It also takes self-belief.”

This project is one of many currently in incubation at District 3, which is continuing to evolve and grow from its headquarters on the 7th floor of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex at the heart of the downtown campus.

“Taking innovations from the lab to the marketplace can often be tricky but crucial to ensure our research and ideas are relevant and will benefit society,” says Robin Drew, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, who was instrumental in creating District 3, providing Faculty funding, space and constant encouragement.

Related links:

•  District 3
•  Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science
•  Concours québécois en entrepreneuriat (in French)

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