2013 PFIG Recipient Robert Koch

Career Administrator

Robert Koch
College of Arts & Sciences
Chinese Language & Literature Major
2015 Graduation Year

Internship: Original Life

Notes on the first week

This summer I am interning for a small firm called Original Life, which is in the process of researching and bringing aquaponics to the Chinese market on a commercial scale. I just arrived in Shanghai, and could never have prepared myself for the first weeks. So many things have changed in that time, I can barely keep track. I had no idea how exhilarating it could be to work at a start-up; I am literally seeing the company change before my eyes. Just a brief introduction of what aquaponics is: Aquaponics is a form of self-sustaining food production, that ideally operates on a closed-loop thus requiring minimal inputs. Aquaponics utilizes bacteria (such as nitrosomonas) that convert fish waste into nutrients (from ammonium to nitrates) through natural processes, and filters these nutrients into a tank filled with vegetation and fruits. Basically, fish produce waste which is converted into nutrients for plant growth by bacteria, and these plants help purify the water which is then filtered back to the fish, thus forming a loop that helps recycle nutrients and reduce waste. I actually have become somewhat of an expert (emphasis on somewhat) regarding this process, seeing as I just gave a TEDx Global Talk on Aquaponics!

One of the things I love about working here is how much trust my supervisors have in me. Although just arriving in Shanghai recently, I had been in contact with my boss for some time, and we had worked out projects for me to focus on during my time here this summer. As a result, I can jump right into helping this company grow. My stated task involves spreading the word about aquaponics around Shanghai (and elsewhere), and attempting to reach distribution contracts with restaurants in the city. Thus, I have gotten to meet several interesting managers of restaurants already, where I let them know about aquaponics and what it provides in terms of sustainable food production. I have had to study food trends in Shanghai quite closely, including how organic foods are rapidly growing in popularity and how the environment is degrading in many areas of China. For instance, 64% of Chinese cities have been found to have “severely” polluted groundwater! At Original Life we hope that aquaponics can provide a solution for this problem, as it is a soilless process and does not use any insecticides or pesticides, all the while taking place in a secure greenhouse.

As I mentioned above, my boss believes in me so much that he gave me the opportunity to give a presentation on aquaponics at a TEDx Global event. This was absolutely amazing. I could barely believe that I had just arrived at this company, and already was representing them to a substantial audience. In addition to this, I also designed a diagram of aquaponics (it’s much easier to digest in pictures as opposed to writing), which was used on company brochures and elsewhere. I never thought I would ever design something, but here I am with an aquaponics illustration under my belt.

Another great thing about working here is that I am with another UVA student, and together I feel like we are learning so much about social entrepreneurship and aquaponics that we can make use of for the rest of our lives. In addition to just working in the office, we have also made a trip out to Original Life’s Greenhouse/Technology Center, where we actually got to see aquaponics in action! It was awesome to help with seeding the plants, and learn in great detail how the science actually works. The experts over there are brilliant, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with over the next couple months.

This summer I have several goals in mind. First, I want to learn more about the science behind aquaponics, and what else is going in the realm of sustainable food production. I had never really given it much thought, but in the coming decades food production will become a crucial issue in many parts of the world, and sustainable options are needed. Additionally, since Original Life is such a new and intimate company, I hope to gain valuable work and life experiences that I can put to use this year in the Commerce School and afterwards. Finally, I hope to make real, tangible contributions to the company in terms of informing people about aquaponics and establishing a sustainable/profitable business model in the coming months and afterwards.

Midway

In the past month or so Original Life has undergone many large changes, and I love seeing how quickly small businesses and social enterprises must adapt and grow to survive, basically all on the fly. I have learned firsthand why a great team is crucial from the beginning, as they are effectively determining what direction the business will take.

Lately, I have been working a great deal on further establishing and developing relations between Original Life and restaurants in Shanghai. This has involved formally drawing up contracts regarding delivery schedules, packaging, and terms of payment, as well as lengthy meetings with managers regarding how we can work together. These experiences have given me valuable insight into how two companies do business together, and what actual business negotiations look like. My other main task has involved spending time with members of the team creating a business plan for the company. Original Life is initially planning to operate on a business-to-business format in its early stages, due to the currently limited selection of crops that can be grown through aquaponics out at the greenhouse. However, in the future they hope to expand into a business-to-consumer platform, by delivering vegetables and herbs right to peoples’ doors. This would be an amazing development, because it would allow a much larger number of people to have access to clean and safe food in their own homes. Thus, I am working with other members to help design what this packaging would look like and how we can most effectively inform people about the benefits of aquaponics. Seeing as I am planning to study marketing in the coming years, it is really valuable to hear professionals discuss branding strategies and other marketing concepts.

A striking lesson that I have learned from my time here is the absolute necessity of communication between different parts of the company. One of the challenges we have experienced so far is ensuring that various teams, especially sales/marketing and production, are able to communicate effectively. Aquaponics is a very sensitive technology, and in the humid climate of Shanghai the crops can encounter many problems, including pests, high temperatures, and others. Since Original Life is a new company, it has to be sure not to tarnish its image by signing a contract that it cannot fulfill, and as a result we have to be very careful to know the exact state of the greenhouse at all times.

In the time I have left at Original Life, I really hope to further develop my knowledge of aquaponics and the different methods that can be constructed to utilize nature’s processes. The scientists on the team have been informing me of various methods of aquaponics (especially utilizing vertical space) that are in use in other areas of the world, and I want to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of these. I will also try to use this knowledge in a presentation that I am due to give in a short time. Finally, I hope to continue to work on my previous goals of understanding the biggest challenges that face businesses when they are just starting up, so that if I do the same I will have already encountered and learned from many of these obstacles.

Final Reflections

Looking back on this summer, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to come to China and work for Original Life. I have learned a lot about both myself and small business, especially the simultaneously rewarding and challenging nature of start-ups.

As this work experience ends, I can clearly see how I have been able to develop since first arriving in Shanghai. A couple of weeks ago I delivered a speech at a NEXTSTEP event focused on entrepreneurship, and I could tell how my presentation and speaking skills have improved compared to earlier in the summer when I gave the TEDx talk. Additionally, it was easier to speak about Original Life because I have had time to learn both about the company and from it, and wasn’t merely reciting things that I picked up from coworkers or online. I can now see firsthand how important it is to gain tangible experiences in the real world, as opposed to reading about what someone else did. While both are crucial in the learning process, I will remember things I learned this summer with more clarity and for a much longer time because they affected me personally.

However, as much as I would like to say that all of these memories and lessons are positive ones, the truth is that I learned more about the challenges facing small businesses than anything else. It was a roller coaster ride unlike anything I had experienced before, as I saw the ups and downs of the company reflected in those whom I worked with, who had poured years of their lives into this project. Inherent in working at any small business is a strong personal bond with both the company’s ideals and your coworkers, and thus each success/failure is magnified in its impact on you and those around you. Some of the challenges that the company faced, which I mentioned in the last entry, were the obstacles in technology and communication between different divisions and the greenhouse. This continued to pose a problem in the following weeks, and recently a leadership transition took place that will substantially change the direction of the company. I truly hope that this change will enable the management team to tackle some of the technological problems the greenhouse has faced, and more carefully align production and sales in the future.

I also learned a great deal about the nature of ‘progress’ with regard to the internal operations vs. the external results of a start-up. Initially I believed that the rapid changes I saw within the firm would clearly translate into tangible results, which was true to an extent. However, much work needs to be put into development and planning for the future, although it may not have an impact until months down the road. This is another reason that those working at start-ups need a clear goal in mind, a plan to get there, and a passion to overcome the obstacles. It may seem like nothing positive is happening in the preparation period, but this is the most important time for ensuring the long-term success of the company.

Looking forward, an important lesson I will take from this experience concerns the type of business I want to work for in the future. Even with only two months at Original Life, I could see how much passion the people working there had for sustainable, safe food production. I’ve realized that working at a small business can, quite frankly, be extremely stressful and demanding, and the demons of self-doubt will always be lurking around the corner. Thus, I now know that if I hope to work at a start-up after I graduate, I need to determine where my passions lie, because the long hours and second guessing will only be overcome if I truly care about what I am doing. I found working with aquaponics to be extremely interesting and fulfilling, and would love to see some of its new applications emerge in the coming years. If another opportunity arose to work with a company on sustainable food production, I would be much more likely to consider it thanks to my time in Shanghai.

If I could say one thing to my fellow undergraduates, it would be to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. Now, obviously, there are many personal and situational factors that need to be taken into consideration, and everyone’s decision is different. I definitely understand how difficult it can be to recognize and seize an opportunity; going halfway around the world to work for a start-up wasn’t exactly the easiest idea to sell to my family (or even to myself). However, I would not in a million years change my decision to come to Shanghai, even if the experience had not turned out so well. I am grateful for both the personal and professional challenges I encountered, because they opened my eyes to how much I still have to learn and what I need to prepare for in the future. In fact, at this age, I believe that failing can actually be more valuable than success. Understanding why you fail and what you need to improve on is best learned early on, and now I see my time at college not just as a time to try to succeed at everything, but also to take risks and learn. It is because of this that I encourage my peers to reach out for opportunities no matter how difficult it might be, because with an open mind almost any experience will be worthwhile in what it can teach them in the future.