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Day 11:

1 March 2017

““Wow. This is it. The Big Day.”
My cousin tells me that’s usually what the bride/groom feels like on the morning of their wedding day. I wasn’t getting married, but those were exact thoughts when I woke up.

Sofia and I hurriedly got ready in our business professional attire, and packed all the cables and technology we needed for the day. We met the rest of the team (read: Chris and Revant) outside and the four of us climbed into the shuttle that would take us, for the last time this trip, to the Canadian University of Dubai. It was Pitch Competition Day.

On the way, we quietly discussed the things that required our attention before we stood on stage in the Red Theatre, pitching StackFarm to a panel of esteemed judges. “Finish the powerpoint! We need to practice the presentation! Have we timed it?! Do you have ue cards ready?! We still need to calculate some numbers in our business model!” The adrenaline was already kicking in, and we still had four hours before we presented.

This is when I realized; in this era of globalization, multiculturalism and competition, mastering a specific set of skills is what distinguishes an individual. In the RGIC Class of 2017, the StackFarm team was arguably the most diverse; culturally, academically and in our personal skillsets. Side Note: this was also probably the reason we had the most, as I like to put it, ‘collaborative tension’!

Needless to say, critical thinking, confidence, effective communication skills, teamwork and creativity all played an integral role in bringing our pitch together in this final stretch. Special shout out to our CUD student, Amruta, who was of great assistance in this process.

I took a short break around noon to play table tennis with Abdullah. He patiently taught me new techniques and we worked up a nice sweat (in hindsight, it may not have been the best idea to play in a nicely ironed blazer and slacks).

Two hours prior to the pitch, we had the opportunity to practice our presentation with a former lawyer and professor at CUD. She grilled us on key facts and maintained that although she thought the product and business model were decent, our presentation skills needed a lot of work. We quickly made changes to our scripts to simplify the technical concepts, and clarify the business proposition. As with any pitch, we started and ended with our strongest speakers – in this case, Chris and I.

It was time.

We headed to the theatre, where there was a fluttering excitement amongst the crowd. I overheard some Ryerson students answering questions posed by CUD Media Relations, such as “In one word, how do you feel? What is your company? What is your product?”

StackFarm is comparatively a quieter team, so we weren’t a part of most of the social media. I tried answering the questions for myself, in vain. I couldn’t decide upon one word. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel.

I had my answer only when we walked up on stage, and I looked out into the audience.

Grateful. That was my word. I felt grateful to be up there. I felt grateful for this opportunity, and for every person who supported me (directly and indirectly!) in my journey.

We pitched. When it was at last my turn, I made the spontaneous decision not to recite what I had prepared, lest we were time-cut. I spoke two sentences.

“The future for agriculture is water and space conservative, clean, and cost-friendly. The future of agriculture is StackFarm. Thank You.” [insert applause here]

The judges followed up with questions, which I took the liberty of answering. And that was it. We walked off stage and watched the remaining (fantastic) pitches.

While the judges convened, we spoke to the distinguished guests in the audience for their feedback. Things to remember for next time:
simplify, simplify, simplify!
use images liberally in the pitch deck
predict the types of questions that will be asked, and prepare answers supported by slides in the pitch deck
have just the right amount of confidence!

StackFarm was the winner of Ryerson Global Innovations Challenge 2017. We are honored to have been a part of a venture that showcased a complete synergy of Ryerson University and Canadian University of Dubai. Monetarily, we won $5000, but the new experiences, mentorship & insights received, networks we built, opportunities for learning, & friendships formed in the past two weeks in the United Arab Emirates are much more valuable.

I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank every person, organization and institution (both in Canada and in the UAE!) that supported us in our growth, and in bringing our social innovation to life! And a very special thank you to my parents, for your continual love, blessings and guidance.

To RGIC, Class of 2017: I absolutely was honored to spend a very memorable, transformative two weeks in the United Arab Emirates with you. Thank you for your friendship, your stories, and for everything you taught me. Cheers to new endeavours!”

– Lakshmi Menon

Stay tuned with StackFarm, through our Instagram/Facebook (@StackFarmCanada) pages because this is only just the beginning.

Day 10:

28 February 2017
“Today was another extremely productive day. We got lots of stuff done including finishing up our financial projections, our PowerPoint, and our research into the UAE. The day started with going to DTech in Silicon Oasis. Silicon Oasis is an entire smart city that is all connected through technology. The tour was interesting and it was cool to see what an actual working environment looks like for many different start-ups in the UAE. The highlight of the trip was playing foosball with Lakshmi and Sofia. I lost unfortunately, but only by a point or two. Afterwards we traveled back into downtown and visited the Huawei Open Lab. I won’t lie, the cameras and face-recognition tech made this was a very creepy yet interesting experience. At this point everyone was starving and I started to feel ill; I suspect I’d picked up a cold. We got back to CUD and straight back to working on our pitches for tomorrow’s competition. I’m excited to finally present our ideas to the judges.”

Chris Bright

Day 9:

27 February 2017

“When it comes to social innovation, it is important to have first-hand experience of the culture. This is what we did this morning. At 8:30am, StackFarm was on the way to one of the most successful farms in the UAE, and the first one to leverage a crude form of hydroponics. Billkhair connected us to his friend Abdulaziz – his uncle owned the farm. They drove us to the outskirts of Ras Al Khaima. Ras Al Khaima has noticeably more fertile land in comparison to the other Emirates. On the way, Billkhair answered our questions on traditions, family dynamics, and the need for a technology like ours in the middle east. For example, in Emirati families, the Patriarch assumes the position of head of family. His first son follows suit in the next generation, while the first grandson is named after the Patriarch.

We arrived at the farm, and Abdulaziz kindly took us on a tour; this was the farm he had played in as a child. Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Corn were the only vegetables being grown at this time. Tomatoes and Corn were planted in the soil, alongside a tubing system that continuously delivered water to these plants in a drip method. Cucumbers, on the other hand, were grown in a greenhouse, using crude hydroponic technology. These seeds were germinated in pots of coco peed, solid nutrition, and some amount of soil. Water travelled through a piping system to each pot, with excess collected in a tube below. This tube recycled the used water through a filter, which was fed again to the plants. Although this was innovative engineering, it is not the most efficient method to grow large scale produce. We unanimously agreed that StackFarm would exponentially increase the rate of production per square meter for the farm.

After the farm visit, we headed over to (my favourite Arabic restaurant!) Zaatar and Zeit, for a quick brunch, before we resumed project work at CUD. At 3pm, we took the Metro to the Emirates Tower station to Dubai International Financial Centre. This required a little legwork and resourcefulness to find the way. We met with Mohammad CEO of Axis Strategic Partners. StackFarm’s elevator pitch was well-received, and Mohammad asked great homework questions, such as the cost for production for StackFarm versus traditional farming.

We returned back to CUD through the Metro, and began preparations for our presentation on Wednesday. In the past two days, StackFarm had slowly evolved from a project to a viable business, and we intended to continue the momentum. Towards the end, we had an RGIC 2017 full team meeting, during which we exchanged constructive criticism for the teams. I found this to be a great exercise and took relevant notes.

It was finally time to call it a day, and we headed back to our rooms in Discovery Gardens. For dinner, I suggested we go to Maharaja Bhog, a nearby Vegetarian Thali restaurant. Their food, customer service, and prices were unparalleled, and I we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Looking forward to another productive day!”

– Lakshmi Menon

Day 8

26 February 2017

“The day opened with the regular 20 or so minute bus ride to CUD which was followed by a quick work session on our presentation as Osman was hearing out the business models and discussing the finer details of all the projects. We worked for as long as we had before we left for the emirate of Ras Al-Khaima, the northernmost of all the emirates, with qualities all of its own. Ras Al-Khaima is also connected by the Sheik Zayed highway that connects Abu Dhabi to Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm Al-Quaim. It boasts lower cost of living and land and more water resources (and mountains) than the other emirates, being a large portion of much of the country’s agriculture. Much information was presented to us at the Ras Al-Khaima Free Trade Zone (RAFTZ) as one of the reasons why this emirate is a good place to operate a business followed by details of the services RAKFTZ can provide. The meeting was informative and much was learned in our discussions thereafter with Aseeb Adbul Khader, a VP of Marketing a the company.
After a lunch at a Afghani-style resturant, we drove back to CUD in Dubai to work for the rest of the day. At CUD, we worked with our consultant, Amruta discussing the details of water quality and necessary steps to ensure good growth over the entire growth cycle. We also met with Dr. Chris Enyinda, who holds PhDs in Logistics and Supply Chain Management as well as in Applied Economics, who advised us in some marketing and logistic aspects of StackFarm.”

– Revant Kumar

Day 6/ Day 7:

24 February 2017/ 25 February 2017

“The weekend, in this part of the world, consists of Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday. Therefore, Friday marked the beginning of the first weekend we’ve experienced here. There were no activities or meetings booked for us for Friday morning, so the four teams decided to head to Jumeirah beach where we ate and relaxed for a few hours. Dinner took place at a restaurant in the Dubai mall, and the night ended late with cheerful banter and team bonding.

Most of Saturday morning was spent working with our teams. In the afternoon, the group had booked a safari package. This included sand dune bashing, riding ATV’s, a camel ride, dinner, and a fire show. It was a weekend filled with laughter and enjoyment for all.”

– Sofia Ahmed

Day 5:

23 February 2017

“The day started out productive as we took a shuttle bus to CUD in the morning at around 9:30am. At CUD we got an informative, enthusiastic lecture for Dr. Anas about creating our business model canvas. This was followed by work time. Lunch at Zaatar w Zeit was delicious again; I really like that place. The long bus ride to New York University of Abu Dhabi allowed us to discuss our plan and allowed me time to catch up on some sleep. NYU Abu Dhabi was very nice; I was surprised at how few students went there and how big the campus was. Robyn, a representative for StartAD, gave an informative presentation and brought up some great criticisms about our idea involving maintenance considerations. From there we went to Saadiyat Beach Club which was a great sight to see. It was such a lovely beach and environment. The heated pool was so nice that I wanted to jump in there myself. Dinner was good and the environment is perfect for good conversations and RGIC bonding.”

– Chris Bright

Day 4:

22 February 2017

“So apparently, the UAE doesn’t only consist of Dubai! Our morning began at 8:00am with a two hour journey to Abu Dhabi. Having realized of how culturally and linguistically diverse our group was, Osman urged each individual to improvise a speech at the front of the bus in their mother-tongue. These included German, French, Arabic, Hindi, Cantonese, Urdu, and for me, Malayalam. Our “speeches” soon became (terrible) impersonations of a tour guide, with individuals pointing out random buildings, cars and trees we drove by. This was met with lots of laughter and more importantly, an inherent admiration for our respective backgrounds. Definitely a moment I will remember!

In Abu Dhabi, we first visited the Etihad Innovation Centre. The global aviation industry is getting increasingly competitive, forcing airlines to be at the cutting edge of innovation in a bid to win and retain passengers. EIC was a well-designed state-of-the-art research and development centre for Etihad Airways. We explored the A787 and A380 Economy/Business/First Classes fleets. The centre is also home to Etihad’s Innovation Training Academy which comprises the largest A380 and B787 cabin service and safety trainers in the world. The first class cabins were visibly a source of fascination for the group!

Next, we visited Alliot Management Consulting (AMC), one of the leading Business Management Consulting firms operating in the U.A.E. We spoke directly to Managing Director, Dr. Syed Qaiser Anis, who is a prominent and sought-after voice in accounting, auditing and consulting sectors. StackFarm’s elevator pitch was well-received, and Dr. Anis expressed interest in purchasing our product for for himself! After this interaction, we concluded that it our next step forward should include the creation of a secondary, working prototype that was to-scale.

It is important to know the legal and economic implications of starting a business in a new country. The Canadian Embassy helped deepen our understanding of these sectors, and provided us with great information on the retail industry. The U.A.E retail market is growing in the grocery sector, which lays opportunities for both domestic and international retailers to expand their business in the country.A whopping 75 percent of all food is imported into the U.A.E, and consumers today are demanding healthier, cleaner, and more accessible foods. These statistics support StackFarm’s business model, and we intend to incorporate it into our final pitch.

We completed the day in Abu Dhabi with a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is also the sepulchre of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder and first President of the United Arab Emirates.

Looking forward to tomorrow, where we can compile all the the advice we received to create a business model.”

– Lakshmi Menon

Day 3:

21 February 2017

“Today started off at 8:15 a.m. sharp. We immediately hit the road to drive all the way to the American University of Sharjah (AUS) located in Sharjah, a neighboring city of Dubai. There, we met and spoke extensively with a host of entrepreneurial-minded people including the Director of Business Development of AUS as well as the marketing and outreach manager of SHERAA, an entrepreneurial initiative that teams with startups to give them access to funding, guidance, and legal help. Through talking to the Director of Business Development, we learned about the existing hydroponics initiatives that are already taking place in and around the country; this proved to be a great brainstorming session as it opened our eyes to unique ways in which we can build interest in our idea.

As common for most group projects, much of work time during the latter part of the day was spent arguing over semantics; after all that we’d learned in our brief time here, it was necessary to integrate our findings with our current state of affairs. After much deliberation, a conclusion was made: we would split the project up into three major phases. The first phase would be targeted towards businesses that can benefit from the product and would be similar to the system we’d been designing and prototyping. The next phase, ideally starting around year two, would involve a business to consumer approach in which we will be selling StackFarms for personal use; at this point, there would need to be a slight redesign to increase aesthetic appeal. Further R&D will be done. The third phase, in which we see ourselves in five or so years, is going to be expanding beyond the UAE and opening ourselves up to the international market.”

– Sofia Ahmed

 

Day 2

20 February 2017

“This day began shortly after the last finished, or at least that’s what it felt like for my body. I got ready haphazardly and went down to the lobby to meet the rest of the group. We took a Canadian University of Dubai (CUD) bus to their campus and had breakfast at a nearby restaurant called Zaltar w Zeit. The food was delicious. There was a heavy cheese focus to many of their dishes. We then had a little opening ceremony between the 18 students, Osman, the CUD students that are working with us, and some key board members and faculty that helped to orchestrate this collaboration. We met out consultants, Amruta, Bilkhair, and Abdullah, students from the CUD who will be providing us with advice and valuable context that only local residents can give. Talking to the students was extremely helpful, not only in terms of government dealings and commercial context, but also because they provided a lot of perspective on the family lives of the emirate.

After our work session with the CUD students, we had a personal building exercise conducted by Leena from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). After lunch, we took the metro to the Dubai mall where we learned that they have separate subways cars for men and women. The walk from the metro stop to the mall itself was likely well over 500 m. The mall was enormous; very upscale, 4 levels, an indoor aquarium, and a footprint larger than the Eaton Centre’s. Our tired legs enjoyed absolutely wonderful food at a Lebanese restaurant. We saw the Burj in all its magnificence as the lights along it’s entire height change colour and patterns. At full illumination, it looked like a shining needle coming out of the Earth.”

– Revant Kumar

Day 1

19 February 2017

“The day started at terminal three of Pearson International Airport where we were greeted by kind and courteous Etihad airline staff. To our surprise, we received complimentary gift bags with tickets to Yas Water World and Ferrari World which we all greatly appreciated! Our flight was long but definitely worth it; I made conversation with the man next to me and we spoke about the Arab world, religion, and business ideas. I ended up getting his contact information and hope to speak with him again someday.

When we’d finally arrived in Abu Dhabi, I was impressed by the scope of the land; everything seemed so large and vast that it felt overwhelming. I was particularly intrigued by the seemingly endless dessert terrain as I’d never been to this part of the world before. While on the bus to the Etihad mall, my group and I took notes regarding our surroundings and chatted about where we could possibly see our hydroponics system being deployed. There are lots of apartment complexes and empty space, which is perfect for our project. Driving into Dubai, I was surprised at how spaced out the skyscrapers were as compared with densely-packed Toronto. Our residence was also more spacious than I’d anticipated. I am looking forward to spending the next two weeks in this living space. The mall where we ate had great food and a fun atmosphere to be in. Overall it was a great first day of the trip and I eagerly anticipate the upcoming weeks.”

– Christopher Bright