An idea launched into reality for Julia Kurnik MPA/MBA 2015 and co-founder of FOCUS Foods Inc. after winning the social enterprise track $50,000 Grand Prize in Harvard Business School’s 2015 New Venture Competition.
We caught up with Julia to learn about FOCUS Foods, what’s next, and how the Harvard Kennedy School community helped her along the way.
Q: Can you tell us about FOCUS Foods?
Agriculture today is irreparably harming our environment through greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, pesticide use and rampant water use. At the same time, the global population is increasing and the UN predicts we will need to increase food production by 60 percent over the next few decades.
FOCUS Foods will solve these problems and revolutionize farming with aquaponics technology. Aquaponics is a nearly closed-loop, sustainable system for growing fruits, fish, and vegetables. The fish waste acts as a natural fertilizer for the plants, giving them all of the nutrients they need to grow. There’s no soil, no pesticides, and our farm uses just 5 percent of the water used in traditional farming.
We will be putting 60,000-square-foot farms inside greenhouses on tops of the roofs of grocery stores and selling everything we grow directly to the stores. This means we’ll also be eliminating all transportation and distribution costs and emissions.
Q: What motivated you to start FOCUS Foods?
I spent nearly two years on the first Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008. During that time I lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country and came to realize how broken our food system is. I was encouraged to do something to fix it and combined that with my lifelong passion for the environment to create FOCUS Foods.
At the same time, my business partner and co-founder came across aquaponics through his strong interest in sustainable energy. As long-time friends from MIT, where we went as undergrads, we decided to start FOCUS Foods together.
Q: What does winning the New Venture Competition mean to you?
The exposure is incredible. Harvard has an enormous stage and platform to get ideas out there. We’re hoping the prize money, along with the exposure, will allow us to start sooner and grow faster, so we can make a true difference in the world.
Q: What advice would you share with students who have an idea for a venture, but aren’t sure about next steps?
School is the perfect time to start a venture. It comes with a built-in support network of professors, staff, classes, fellow students, and more. As soon as you start looking, you’ll realize there are so many resources. People are also incredibly supportive. My network of classmates, friends, professors, and staff has been invaluable to me. Just start asking questions and sit down for advice with as many people as possible. Each person connects you to someone new.
Q: What’s next for FOCUS Foods?
I’ll be graduating next month and starting on FOCUS Foods full time. Right now we have a prototype up and running, but we hope to parlay the prize money and exposure into the funds needed to build our first industrial-size farm. I’m really looking forward to starting this process. The faster we grow, the more impact we have.
Q: How has your time at HKS influenced your work?
I love HKS and everything for which it stands. First, I want to give a special shout-out to my classmates – the MPAs! They have shown up en masse to help critique practice pitches, vote for me in crowd favorites, provide advice, and encourage me to make this happen.
They are an incredible group of people and I am so honored to call them my friends. To me, that is the true spirit of HKS – a community of incredible people who have come from all over the world and who have already done amazing things, but still will take time out of their lives to support one another.
Second, I credit the general spirit of the larger HKS community. It is a place that strives to make a difference in the world and to instill that in all of its students. It is truly unique and special.