Mark Burns had been selling locally sourced flowers since high school, but after collaborating with two fellow Clemson students — who were previously perfect strangers — the floral concept blossomed into a business idea worthy of winning the 2021-22 Cultivate.CAFLS Showdown.
Cultivate.CAFLS aims to encourage students to develop ideas and explore innovative solutions and, each fall, students from the university’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) compete for prizes to help bring their business plan to life.
Teams were given $500 in seed money to develop their ideas, and on March 14 inside the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium, Burns (Sumter, S.C.) and teammates Abigail Gibson (Florence, S.C.) and Weston Whitfield (North Augusta, S.C.) captured the $2,000 top prize for their project, Blooms & Buds.
The winning project is an offshoot of the business Burns began as a sophomore in high school, Oswego Flowers, which sells specialty cut flowers farmed in rural Oswego, South Carolina. Burns was introduced to his teammates by faculty advisor Kirby Player, and the group developed their winning concept together from there.
“I’ve enjoyed working with two people I’d never met before this project. It’s been very neat working with someone with a packaging science background and someone with some marketing experience,” said Burns, a junior horticulture major.
Blooms & Buds aims to capture a younger demographic in the floral industry compared to some existing companies, as the team will explore a marketing approach that capitalizes on the concept of a sustainable and environmental beneficial plant and package to entice young consumers to give sustainable blooms and buds. This will be done in the production process of flowers and sustainable recyclable packaging to ship or share the flower purchase.
Whitfield, a senior in packaging science, said the Cultivate competition allowed him to build on his previous Clemson experiences — such as a packaging theory course that explored packaging design and market research and a co-op program that provided real-world experience — to learn about entrepreneurship.
“We’ve been able to kind of blossom with it — take our own designs, take our own ideas and take that past experience that Clemson’s given us and let it grow,” Whitfield said.
And Gibson, a senior in parks, recreation and tourism management, said the collaboration with her teammates on the project was the key to its success.
“I had a great time interacting with both these boys, and we were able to put our brains together to create something that is in the works. We’re very excited for what’s next and we’ve gotten great feedback from the judges to continue our business and make improvements on what we have,” Gibson said.
Player, a lecturer in the CAFLS Agriculture Education program, said he believes Cultivate.CAFLS offers students an opportunity to work together in a group with others with different skill sets and ideas, which emulates “what they’ll be doing in the real world.”
“There are learning opportunities in a Cultivate project that you just cannot get in a classroom,” Player said. “So, I watch older students who are all engaging and mentoring younger students in an informal fashion, and they are all working toward a common goal.”
Julia Kerber, a senior in animal and veterinary sciences from Gray Court, S.C., took home $1,000 to grow her business by finishing in second place and an additional $500 for her advertisement, which teams were required to produce for the competition and which was voted “Best Commercial.”
Her project, Kerby’s Kritters, is a pet boarding, grooming and daycare service that will specialize in dogs but welcome other household pets to board when owners are away on vacation.
Kerber said the Cultivate.CAFLS experience had not only helped her secure additional funding to expand her business plan, but she also received great advice in helping her venture find its niche and made connections to help her venture succeed.
Kerby’s Kritters would serve all animals and be focused on rural and suburban areas, rather than more-populated urban areas, aiming to provide a rural escape for city animals.
“I’m very passionate about agriculture as well as this aspect of kennels, so I definitely hope to start this business and I hope this is where I’ll end up and make a career out of this,” Kerber said.
The $500 third-place prize went to a pair of packaging science majors, graduate research assistant Sneh Bangar (Hisar, India) and Cayden Gates (Indian Land, S.C.), whose project focused on the development of starch-based films reinforced with Kudzu cellulose nanocrystals as a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging material.
“One of the biggest experiences that we’ve taken out of this is: How do we take our product from a research lab and take it to a global market where people can learn what we’re doing from non-scientific backgrounds? Where we hope to go from here is to turn our research truly into a company, and that’s going to become possible through the Cultivate challenge,” said Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences major Gates.
CAFLS Director of Entrepreneurship Andrew Hurley said the Cultivate.CAFLS program was just the beginning of the entrepreneurial opportunities available to Clemson University students and one he hopes will encourage them to pursue all the available resources on campus.
“The students are working on their passions to create a company and then moving that forward to a funding stream so they can, while they study, pursue their degree and launch a company at the same time,” Hurley said. “So, that is a great resume addition … and (the faculty mentors) are pushing students to push the boundaries and take advantage of all the puzzle pieces here at Clemson University to take their idea and really bring it life.”
After the students presented their projects to a panel of distinguished judges and prior to the winners being announced, CAFLS Dean Keith Belli applauded all those who participated for having the gumption to enter — saying the event “hits the heart of the CAFLS mission.”
“It can be really intimidating. You think, ‘How am I going to start a new company? How am I going to be an entrepreneur?’ It comes down to being willing to take a risk and put yourself out there,” Belli said. “Maybe you succeed, maybe you don’t. And most companies don’t — until they do. Most people don’t — until they do.”
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