Rice students help Texas’ first organic hydroponic farm with market research, label design

A group of Rice undergraduates had a firsthand view of how soilless farming is revolutionizing the way produce is grown. As part of a spring course through Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie), the students — Amelia Calautti, Jacob Magdy Attia and Carl Thompson — acted as market research and label design consultants to Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which is Texas’ first organic hydroponic farm.

Rice undergraduates Amelia Calautti and Jacob Magdy Attia at the Wiess College community garden.

Rice undergraduates Amelia Calautti and Jacob Magdy Attia at the Wiess College community garden. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

In the course, Lilie E-Teams Experience, students formed teams and collaborated on a project suggested by a Houston startup company. Using design thinking, students crafted an innovative solution by developing empathy for the users, articulating the problem, brainstorming possibilities, prototyping for communication and testing and iterating, according to course instructor Hesam Panahi, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. The course’s 21 students partnered with six startups that are affiliated with Station Houston, the region’s hub for tech innovation and entrepreneurship focused on digital technologies.

“The term (design thinking) sort of stems from the fact that designers implement this in their everyday routine, but you can actually apply design thinking in your business, in your classroom, in so many different experiences,” said Panahi, who is also a faculty member at the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and Lilie.

“It really starts off with just building empathy for whomever you’re designing for,” he said. “Also … a big part of it is being able to go out and test something without it being perfect. One of the things that I hope the students get from the course is this bias toward action. Oftentimes, we try to create this perfect prototype or this perfect tool that we can then put in front of a user or customer and say, ‘Do you like this?’ We try to encourage them by saying, ‘Look. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to look exactly like what you think your final product is going to look like, but you need to get something out there; you need to get some feedback and iterate.’”

‘You can’t get anything as good as talking to people in real life’

Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest Farming Co.

For Calautti, Attia and Thompson, their project required them to understand the business and customers of a 3-year-old company that grows produce such as lettuce and kale in a sustainable, indoor farm in southwest Houston. The Dream Harvest vertical farming operation is hydroponic, meaning plants are not grown in soil, but in water and nutrients. The operation uses less than 5 percent of the water of a normal farm, uses no pesticides and is fully powered by wind energy, according to the company. Dream Harvest can grow 70 times the produce of a normal farm without taking up arable land and can deliver produce from the farm to the store within hours of harvest.

Dream Harvest’s request was for students to help it understand if and how it’s reaching the right customers and how they’re receiving the product. Currently, the farm sells its produce at two Whole Foods stores in Houston and at Phoenicia Specialty Foods. The students visited one of the Whole Foods locations to survey customers about their produce-buying and consumption habits.

“You can’t get anything as good as talking to people in real life,” said Calautti, a Will Rice College freshman majoring in psychology. “When we spoke to people … basically everyone we interviewed said the exact same thing. When it comes down to buying organic food, they don’t really read the label but look at how fresh the leaves are. Nobody’s really loyal to a brand. From that we figured out that in order to differentiate Dream Harvest from other brands, something that was very important was how (products) were harvested that morning and in the store within a few hours. We designed a sticker, something small that won’t really cover up the leaves.”

Rice lecturer Hesam Panahi in his office at the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Attia, a Will Rice College junior majoring in cognitive sciences, appreciated the opportunity to get an understanding of business strategy and thinking. “We’re just getting introduced to the world of business,” he said. “A class like this will be very helpful in the future, with interning or having a job in a startup company.”

“The students’ work was really illuminating,” said Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, who knew Panahi from Houston’s startup community. “It showed us that the customers who are seeing our product didn’t necessarily understand all the ways that it really matched up with the customers’ desires. Some of those things they were getting from our product label, but some of those things they weren’t. For example, the students helped us understand that what people really want when they look at the package was to see more of our greens, or they wanted to know how fresh it was. But they also really liked that our package showed that it was grown in Texas and that is was certified organic.”

With the students’ help, the company took a new approach to its labeling by giving customers a better view of the greens in its packaging and adding a “farm to store within 24 hours” line, Shauk said. The label is currently under review by the USDA’s organic certifiers. This summer, two Rice undergraduate students are interning with Dream Harvest to extend market research and marketing work as well as operations and sustainability efforts, Shauk said.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.