As an undergrad studying environmental science at the University of Connecticut, Hugh Neri figured he’d end up working in a lab somewhere. In fact, he did. But his job as a chemistry lab technician for a Eugene-based company specializing in coatings, fillers, and adhesives left him feeling restless.
“I just didn’t enjoy it,” Hugh says. “I was always trying to do my own thing. I thought it just wasn’t the right job.”
His dissatisfaction led him to enroll in graduate programs at Portland State University studying Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship. Through class projects and networking with faculty and students, Hugh started to think about this concept of entrepreneurship — but still couldn’t picture making the leap.
Meanwhile, Skyler Pearson, Hugh’s future business partner, was working in the health industry helping clients live better lives through nutrition and body rehabilitation. She liked the work, but knew that one day she wanted to own her own business. How was another question.
“I definitely didn’t have a clear image of what I would be doing or how I could become an entrepreneur,” Skyler says now.
Fast forward to fall, 2019 and find Skyler and Hugh busily developing the second prototype of their company Nexgarden’s enclosed outdoor farm on a 30-foot trailer at Portland’s Zidell Yards. They have interest from Market of Choice and Green Zebra to sell produce from the farm once it’s up and running. Meanwhile an existing Nexgarden farm in the basement of the Nines Hotel in Portland is already putting produce on restaurant tables and Skyler was in Washington, D.C., in September to participate in a roundtable discussion about women in entrepreneurship organized by the Center for American Entrepreneurship, attended by U.S. Senator Tim Scott and Senator (and presidential candidate) Amy Klobuchar.
Suffice it to say that Hugh and Skyler are firmly entrenched in the entrepreneurial life these days. Sure, they both have part-time day jobs to pay the bills while they figure out how the Nexgarden indoor farming system is going to maximize output and revenue, but a $74,0000 grant from Business Oregon, the state’s economic development bureau, has ensured that they have the capital to build a prototype.
Nexgarden’s journey began in 2017 when Hugh talked his girlfriend Skyler into joining his team for the Portland State University Cleantech Challenge where the Nexgarden concept for a high-output, mobile, indoor farm to address food insecurity and climate change first began to take shape. They placed second in that competition and advanced to the Invent Oregon competition.
Hugh and Skyler say the workshops they went through as they prepared for the InventOR finals were instrumental in refining their business plan and the farm prototype. It allowed them to explore different revenue models and think critically about the intellectual property involved in the Nexgarden high-efficiency vertical farm.
“Honestly, I think what I learned most in InventOR was how to explore new ideas and ask for help. I think that that’s an integral part of being an entrepreneur, and participating in InventOR really opened me up to all of the amazing resources and knowledge that I am surrounded by,” says Skyler. “I learned how to ask questions about things I didn’t know and seek out assistance from subject matter experts. When you get comfortable doing that, it expands the possibilities of what you can accomplish 10 times over.”
When the Invent Oregon Finals rolled around in October, 2017, the Nexgarden team was ready, but they never expected to win. They thoroughly enjoyed the thrilling experience of making their pitch in front of a big audience at OMSI’s Empirical Theater, they got a charge from talking to judges who didn’t hesitate to ask the really hard questions about the business, but when all was said and done, they figured they were in the middle of the pack of college inventors.
“When they announced that we were the winner, we were dumfounded. Skyler started crying,” Hugh says. “But it was also the moment when we realized that we should 100% go for this business. It was the affirmation we needed. We kind of had imposter syndrome until that moment.”
Nexgarden invested nearly all of the $20,000 InventOR prize money in securing a patent for their farming system. Then they started working to refine the business, determining details like the types of vegetables they could grow that would net the healthiest revenue stream.
“Most vertical farms are just growing leafy greens, but our farm design allows us to grow a lot of different things in one farm,” Hugh says.
They also charted a path for growth that involves applying for grants — like the one they received from Business Oregon — to prove the concept, demonstrating the yields and cash flow that Nexgarden farms can generate and then looking at financing models such as venture capital or business loans to accelerate. The partners, who are employing one part-time engineer, expect that by 2021 the business will be on a growth trajectory.
In the meantime, Hugh and Skyler have continued to evolve as entrepreneurs and have been generous with their time serving as judges for PSU’s Cleantech Challenge and Invent Oregon.
And Skyler’s recent trip to Washington has her reflecting on how the entire ecosystem can be improved to support young entrepreneurs.
“During my preparation, I spent a lot of time ruminating on the challenges that I face related to government,” Skyler said. “For example, federal grants are so complex that it really creates a barrier for anyone who isn’t familiar with the system. Or, in a different area, how the federal food stamps program has red tape around it for people staring their own business. I really gave me pause about how much stronger of an economy we could have if entrepreneurship was prioritized at a federal level. But, I have hope! The round table was also serving as an announcement for the new Senate Caucus on Entrepreneurship, with Klobuchar and Scott as Co-chairs. I’m glad to see that the issues are being though of and forward progress is being made.”