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From food waste to rooftop gardens

At the World Robot Olympiad young entrepreneurs from around the world get to present their robotics project as a business proposal in the Future Innvovators program. The Unifesh team from left to right in white t-shirts: Vo Nguyen Kha Ai, Huynh Minh Hieu and Ha Pham Thao Vy at the 2018 International Final in Thailand.

The winners of Future Innovators in 2018, the Unifesh team from Vietnam, made sure their food waste fueled rooftop gardens were viable by interviewing real people and potential customers. 

The three friends, who represented Vietnam in the World Robot Olympiad™ Future Innovators program in 2018, were 18 years old at the time. The team had to work around the fact, that one of them, Ha Pham Thao Vy, was in Finland at the time. So they quickly decided that Vo Nguyen Kha Ai and Huynh Minh Hieu would build and code the project. Vy would handle the project description and business plan from afar.

Why transport waste to the countryside

To find a worthy project, they looked in their own and surrounding countries for issues that needed solving. One is the daily amount of waste in cities. They thought: why transport the waste to the countryside, to make it into fertilizer, if you can do it in the city, in your own building?
The first step would be a recycle system. Vy says:
"We chose apartment buildings, because they put waste in garbage chutes, which goes straight to the basement. So that is where we set up a crushing machine and the first step: a recycling system that turns food waste into fertilizer. Our system produces fertilizer in just 24 hours instead of the usual 3 months. Second step was making liquid nutrients. Then we put solar panels on the roof to get energy for the system. A new type of indoor water garden was set up, needing only water and liquid nutrients, also known as Aeroponics farming."

The team spent six months on the project in total. First they settled on design, what to solve and how. The following months turned the idea into their first model, and the last month was spent improving it and creating the final model.

A lot of questions and experimenting

Vy, who was in charge of the business plan, laughs, when asked if they ran into problems along the way. The product is B2B and large scale, so it took a long time to identify the market, and which kind of business they were in. She says: 
"The construction industry is brand new for me and the team. We had to ask a lot of questions, see apartment buildings, contact general contractors and adjust the business model a lot to match the market."
Ai and Hieu also had to experiment a lot on the coding and engineering, taking time to test and start over to make sure the machines could work automatically.

300 people survey and a perfect pitch

The team had asked a lot of experts to support their point, resulting in a very thorough presentation. To prepare for it, they watched a lot of videos of startups pitching their ideas. With 20 minutes to present, they set the scene by telling a story about the current problems with food quality and waste handling. Then they explained how their product works, the segments they target, how to do marketing, their main activities to generate revenues, key resources and who they would choose as partners. Ai says:
"We didn't get a lot of questions. We had implemented a test including 300 people in Ho Chi Minh city, so we had data to qualify our points."

From Final to television interview

After the Final in Thailand, the team went back and solved some issues with their prototype. Journalists had been following them on the sideline, and they were asked to do an interview with Vietnam Television, the national television broadcaster. Vy says:
"We told them about what we do, how it's related to STEM, and how it can apply to daily life. They asked if our project will come true. We told them, if we get investors, we can develop it."

But if there is one thing, that has blown the minds of the team, it's the work and money it will take to make the project go live. Vy says:
"We would need a lot of investors, a network, we have to comply with laws of the state, get a license and so on. And we knew it would take capital, but after doing the budget we saw that it will take a LOT of money to make it happen!"

Building a huge enterprise is not in the cards for the three friends right now, though. They are getting on with university life and gaining life experience. Vy is still in Finland, Ai has gone to the States, and Hieu is keeping an eye on things in Vietnam.