Student project now Business Plan Competition finalist
SCRANTON, Pa. – The decision to return to school may dramatically change the life of one Lackawanna College student this week.
Sean Russell, 24, of Scranton, earned his GED from the College and began his coursework as a Business Administration major in the fall of 2014. He said he was attracted to the major as an opportunity to flex his creative muscles after several stints in the construction industry.
“It was hard to find work. I did find work, but all of my work led me to traveling. I’m a single father and it’s really hard to travel,” he said.
During his first semester, Russell took a Principles of Management course led by Stan Kania, an adjunct professor in the Business Division. The two were seemingly destined to meet, as the course was also Kania’s first as a professor.
In the Principles of Management class, students were challenged to apply the theory behind the material to develop an actual business plan.
“Doing that type of project allowed the students to synthesize what they learned and actually get to practice it in a real-life environment,” Kania explained.
Once students completed their business plans, they presented them before Kania and two business professionals from outside the College community. The “Shark Tank”-style presentation also provided students with experience in public speaking and networking.
Following the presentation, one of the professionals that Kania invited to class suggested that Russell enter his idea in the annual Business Plan Competition put on by TecBridge. The northeastern Pennsylvania-based agency strives to create entrepreneurial opportunities in our region.
That plan for Russell’s Aquaponics is now one of four-collegiate level finalists in the 2015 competition and is eligible for up to $100,000 in prizes and in-kind services to get the business off the ground. It calls for the creation of a year-round organic produce and tilapia farming greenhouse beginning in northeastern Pennsylvania and hopefully expanding across the state.
According to his business plan, aquaponics is essentially a cross between organic growing and aqua culture where fish farming is used to harness fish waste and feed plants. Russell estimates that he would begin the business with a 48’x96’ greenhouse totaling just over 4,700 square feet that would yield 48,000 pounds of tilapia and 12,000 pounds of fresh produce in its first year. His background in construction will make it easy to draw up the blueprints, he added.
“It’s insane how much it can yield in comparison with traditional farming. With traditional farming, the farmer only makes on one acre of corn about $900, and that’s because of all of the costs of running the machines and fertilizer and to pay people to take care of the land.”
By comparison, Russell estimates and annual cost of $72,000 to run the business with gross profits of $240,000 in sales to wholesale distributors and direct-to-store shipping, leaving $168,000 in net profits.
The plan for a small organic greenhouse will also allow Russell’s Aquaponics to “leave a carbon tiptoe where others leave a carbon footprint.” The tilapia, he explained, produce carbon dioxide that feed the plants. Additionally, fish waste and other materials break down into ammonia in the water, which then break down into nitrite and later nitrate. The nitrate is also consumed by the plants as they filter the ammonia out of the water.
“It basically takes Mother Nature and what it does and helps it do it better,” he said.
Preparing for the Business Plan Competition was difficult, but a series of boot camps gave competitors access to different templates and resources to make their plan successful. Kania also transitioned from his role as a professor to that of a mentor to help his student succeed.
“These students are the future business leaders of tomorrow,” Kania said.
Russell submitted his initial presentation on April 1 and was notified April 16 that he was one of four collegiate finalists in the competition. He made his final presentation on April 20 and is expected to learn the results at a dinner April 30.
He’s competing against other collegiate-level finalists whose plans call for an app-controlled safety light for longboard commuters that fits beneath the skateboard, a small emergency oxygen supply for kayakers, and a product that allows users to snowboard or ski without a hill and wakeboard without a boat.
“There’s some tough competition there. I was already telling two of them that I want to buy their product,” Russell admitted with a laugh.
As a part-time student, he strives to juggle life in the classroom and the demands of being a dad to his son, Riley, who will turn 5 in June. He jokes about how the two share a hatred of homework and how working on the business plan competition has cut into their time together.
“He’s furious with me because he wants me to run around and play. I get so caught up with having to take care of everything with the business, and I have to explain how the week works,” he said.
All in all, Russell is hopeful that the plan will find success even if he’s not declared the winner on Thursday evening. He hopes Russell’s Aquaponics could have a positive impact on the environment and perhaps teach Riley some life lessons along the way.
“Work hard, be dedicated, and don’t let anybody tell you no.”