Tse (left) and Rivera-Romo (right) pose with their microgreens on campus. Credit: Ashley Spinoglio / Mustang News

Random roommates in Cal Poly’s residence halls might consider themselves close friends after spending an entire year together — yet even fewer do roommates become business partners. Business junior Emmanuel Rivera-Romo and public health senior Ethan Tse started as strangers, but now run a microgreen startup together. 

The two were able to start a successful pursuit out of their apartment growing microgreens and selling them. The two felt driven to make positive change in their campus and therefore began to gather the resources needed to make this happen. Integris, a healthcare organization, describes microgreens as young seedlings of vegetables and herbs that contain increased nutrient values.

Currently, the team lacks a space on campus to grow their business that will provide locally sourced microgreens to its peers, whether it be an indoor classroom or an agriculture unit.

Tse said their shared passion for agri-business was fostered by adrive to create positive change on Cal Poly’s campus.

The microgreen endeavor found success in part due to support from faculty and students and interest from local restaurants such as Guisseppe’s Cucina Rustica and NoVo. 

Tse said the growth of his business surprised him. 

“[It went from] two guys to almost more than ten people that have yet to come to our meetings but have expressed tons of interest in bringing their projects, their ideas and their influences to our business,” Tse said.

Tse attributes much of the endeavor’s success to the team’s advisors in the College of Business, BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department and professors Thomas M. Katona and Dr. Kuwahara. Tse said these two professors helped Rivera-Romo and him develop a business model to start their business professionally. 

Once Tse and Rivera-Romo got a head start with this assistance, their project made it into the Innovation Quest. As described by Rivera-Romo, the Innovation Quest was a Cal Poly-run event where students with start-ups compete for funding from investors.

 “That was a huge learning experience for us,” Rivera-Romo said. “I think that kind of experience can be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Although the microgreen business became a finalist of Innovation Quest, it did not win. 

However, Tse and Rivera-Romero jump-started the beginnings of a potential business venture. Now having made progress with their involvement in Innovation Quest and garnering interest from Cal Poly and the larger San Luis Obispo community, Tse and Rivera-Romo look to the Cal Poly Corporation for aid. 

“I want to be a partnership in that my plants could be part of Cal Poly’s catalog of produce {that is created by Agriculture students}, but having the students have more control of where the finances go back,” Tse said, when describing the desired impact he wants to have with his business. Tse describes how he wants to work with Cal Poly to serve his community entirely instead of campus dining as a corporation.

“I want a majority of it to go back to the students, less to the school, because quite frankly, [the effort] was the students.” 

According to the 2018 Cal Poly Basic Needs Report, 27% of Cal Poly’s students experience food insecurity. Tse believes that there could be “immense potential to amend this widespread disparity of fundamental needs not being met” if student-run businesses were more strongly supported.

This microgreen startup aims to validate students’ power to create positive change in their communities. 

“I think our project has the potential to be helping other neighborhoods that have trouble having access to healthy greens. I think that’s something that we can bring to the table as well as many other of these green startups,” Tse said.