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Phytoponics is August's Featured Business of the Month

Tue, 21 August 2018

Adam Dixon won a Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Award in August 2017 for his business, Phytoponics.
Phytoponics is an agricultural start-up born out of Adam Dixon’s hydroponic hobby. Adam, and his co-founder, Luke Parkin, wanted to find a way to transform an interest into a business, scale the venture, and offer commercial greenhouses an innovative solution for growing fresh produce.
Phytoponics’ designs are high performance and provide huge sustainability benefits. By using 90% less land and water than traditional farming and allowing for growth in unfertile areas, Phytoponics is aiming to localise food chains and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.
Adam and Luke are based in Wales and are currently preparing for a commercial-scale trial. Since Phytoponics’ inception, their aim has been to make the business model appeal to investors and effect change at a commercial level.
Now that Phytoponics is just over two years old, we sat down with Adam to catch up with him and see what’s next for his award-winning business.
What was the inspiration behind Phytoponics?
I grew up with a strong interest in both nature and technology, so through my hydroponics hobby and engineering ability, I thought of ways to use hydroponics to solve global problems, and after researching the commercial horticulture sector found a number of issues which, if solved, would enable hydroponics to make an impact. I then had an idea to use low-cost polymer film & manufacturing as a basis to make a deep-water culture hydroponic system and took a leap of faith. 
How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself?
At sixth form I became a part-time gardener as I couldn't find work and wanted to manage myself, and then at University I started a CAD consultancy and proofreading side business. Those operations only gave me pocket money, but I thought it was better than bar work or minimum wage jobs, as I managed to average £20/h. Working at a manufacturing plant in two gap years built a skill-set in industrial engineering and appreciation of management, and I enjoyed it. So Phytoponics came when I had both the idea and confidence to start the long, hard slog of launching a start-up through bootstrapping. 
What challenges did you face when setting up your business?
People are the biggest challenge. When I started I was unfocused, inexperienced and unaware of exactly what was needed to build a team, let alone convince people to put up with risk and work for free. With the right team, a lot can be accomplished and eventually I assembled three other co-founders (two of whom have since left) and, using brute force, developed prototypes and got on an accelerator. My co-founder Luke and I work together well, and when we found the right partners, things got a lot easier as we could benefit from real expertise to develop our product and business model. Money, of course, is a big challenge. We ran out of money a couple of times and found it very difficult getting capital early on when the risk was high. In hindsight, if I knew what I did now it would have been easy to access finance but learning and evolving as an entrepreneur only happens through struggle, so early cash flow struggles taught us invaluable lessons for the future which have enabled larger fundraisers and makes life easier. 

What is your biggest (or proudest) achievement with the business?
To date, my biggest achievement is building the team, investors and partners behind Phytoponics, as I feel much more confident now than I did last year. But the biggest achievements are still to come. 
You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2017, how have things changed for you since then?
We did, and luckily the award came in at a time when it was absolutely needed, as a funder pulled out and the award came in to partly fill its place. Since August last year, we have hired three more people, raised £200k+ through investment and grants, and most importantly developed the system for our current ongoing trial in Wales.
What’s next for Phytoponics? 
We will be finishing our current trial for tomatoes in November, after which we plan to upscale to a commercial-size pilot farm and raise a pre-Series A round to scale-up. Keep watching this space! 
Phytoponics' hydroponic growing system with trial tomato crop
What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low-carbon society?
I think that entrepreneurs and technologists can potentially have a big impact in the transition to a low-carbon society if they innovate a business model or technology that can replace carbon intensive market incumbents in a commercially viable way, and venture capital/social investment can resource them to impact at scale. Market incumbents are slow to innovate and many actively stifle low-carbon initiatives or competition through unfair practices, as they often have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Entrepreneurs often don't have this vested interest and work towards a gap in the market or impact objectives, which is powerful. Governments must play a role in creating sustainability-driven markets however through regulation, incentivising and antitrust, because entrepreneurs then have a more level playing field vs big market incumbents and more motive to implement low-carbon and Sustainable Development Goal impacts. 

What’s your approach to risk as an entrepreneur?
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. 
What’s the most important personality trait to have as an entrepreneur and why?
If you could return to this time last year would you do anything differently?
Yes, a lot. I’d implement some radical changes earlier - with hindsight.
What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
Make sure you are emotionally ready for the challenges ahead, and then go for it and learn on the way. 
Got a Smart Idea for a Business? 
Do you have a smart business idea that will provide a solution to the world’s future transport, food, energy, or natural resource challenges, or make our urban environments cleaner and more sustainable places to work and live in? If so you can apply online now for funding!

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