Founders: Rob Elliott, PhD (’15SEAS) and Nathan Littlewood ’17
Industry: Food and Sustainability
Years in Business: 1
Best-Selling Products: Edible Flowers Kit and Culinary Classics Kit
Nathan Littlewood ’17 wants to solve some of the world’s biggest food problems with small solutions – so small they can fit on your windowsill. Littlewood is the co-founder and CEO of Urban Leaf, a company that sells indoor gardening kits containing all the materials needed to grow edible herbs and flowers in repurposed glass bottles. The kits include herb seeds, soil inserts, germination stickers, and bottle labels. You simply fill a bottle with water, add the contents of the kit, and in two to 10 days, sprouts will appear. Littlewood believes that by bringing people closer to their food, he can empower consumers to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. Here, in his own words, he tells us how easy it is to make a measurable impact on the environment using water, seeds, and an empty bottle.
I grew up in Perth, Australia, one of the most remote cities in the world and also a large hub for natural resources such as oil and gas. I was passionate about food from a young age and my original career aspiration was to become a chef. I never pursued a career in the culinary world, but it was something I’ve maintained an interest in throughout my life. I worked in the mining industry as a project manager for mine sites and later as a mining research analyst at an investment bank. Although the money was great and I was traveling the world, I knew for a long time that banking wasn’t for me. Something didn’t feel right. It lacked purpose and I felt I needed to get out.
A New Leaf
The critical moment for me happened in 2015 when I went on a camping trip with a friend. We were chatting about life and careers, and she could sense my lack of enthusiasm when talking about my career in finance. She asked me, “Why are you doing this? What is your purpose?” That conversation was the beginning of a highly introspective period in my life. It was also around the same time I had applied to Columbia Business School and been invited for an interview. Once I was accepted, I realized it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. The chance to get my career back on track. I used my time at school to relaunch my career and to start my journey down a path that I hope future generations will one day be proud of. I knew I was passionate about food, the environment, and technology, and I wanted to build a business in the intersection of those spaces.
A Budding Solution
As an EMBA student who didn’t have to balance a full-time job on top of school, I had a lot of free time on my hands and used it for networking. I went to every event I could find, talked to anyone I could, and tried to learn as much as possible about the industries that interested me. I met my co-founder, Rob Elliott, PhD (’15SEAS), when he was presenting at Columbia’s Earth Institute on green infrastructure and how to incorporate plants into urban environments. His talk got my attention and I sent him an email asking if he’d like to meet for coffee. We started meeting every month or so to chat and kick around ideas in the urban agriculture space. It was a space that not only interested us both deeply, but one that we also believed was doing a remarkable job of addressing many sustainability and health challenges in our food system.
One of the biggest lessons I learned at Columbia was that it doesn’t matter how clever or creative an idea is. If it doesn’t solve a problem, then no one will care about it. We recognized that although there is interest in urban agriculture, most of the products on the market today are too expensive or complicated for the average consumer. We thought that if we were able to develop a product simple and accessible enough for the average person, we could not only help introduce people to a more sustainable lifestyle but could also build a profitable business. Our product leads you, in the simplest of ways, through the process of growing your own produce. Customers just need to use a recycled glass bottle they have in their home (dark green or brown to block red/blue light from entering and growing harmful algae), fill the bottle with water, place the garden insert into the neck of the bottle, sprinkle three to five seeds into the soil insert, and cover the insert with a germination sticker (that gets removed once sprouts start growing). Sprouts usually start growing within two to 10 days, and once your herbs have grown there are endless recipe options, from Greek salad with a yogurt dill sauce to Thai basil fried rice. We’ve even launched a new SMS-based support feature so that beginner gardeners can sign up for occasional maintenance reminders and how-to guides.
Room to Grow
Unlike the Keurig-type business model, where you have to buy an expensive appliance upfront before you can use their pods, we are taking the reverse approach. We sell the pods upfront, and they are an easy way for someone to get started without an initial high-cost purchase. By lowering the barrier to entry, we aim to make our product more accessible. But the next stage of Urban Leaf will be a bigger hardware unit that you can put our current inserts into so that you can grow more meaningful quantities of food, including flowering plants like tomatoes and peppers. We have a whole lot of different ideas about other products, add-ons, and accessories. We're looking at things like a subscription model as well. Our long-term vision includes evolving Urban Leaf into a marketplace for indoor gardening and urban agriculture products, which I am pretty confident is going to be a very hot space over the next five to 10 years.
Seeds of Change
What we’re trying to do with Urban Leaf is to facilitate a relationship that brings people closer to their food. We want to show people what food really is, what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, because there is a tremendous amount of research that shows people who are more engaged with their food will make healthier, more sustainable choices. We want to change the way people think about food, and by doing so, empower them to make healthier and more sustainable food choices. I want people to realize that the most powerful tool to fight climate change isn’t a solar panel or an electric car – it’s a fork.