University of Connecticut student Christian Heiden is Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Levo International Inc. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2015 and incorporated in Connecticut in 2017 with a mission to advance food stability in developing countries and food responsibility in the United States.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Christian about his entrepreneurial journey and the ways in which UConn has helped his startup become a thriving business.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
CHRISTIAN HEIDEN: Yes, I’ve always been a social entrepreneur. My interest in using a fresh perspective to solve longstanding issues, like poverty, began in middle school. I’ve been working on the business concept for Levo since my junior year of high school.
NAN: Tell us a little about the company and what makes it innovative.
CHRISTIAN: Levo is focused on ending hunger and ending poverty, which are not new goals. But the way we’re trying to achieve those goals is by thinking differently. We’ve been changing, simplifying, and improving our hydroponic farming technology, but our greatest innovation is not just our technology, it’s actually the model we’re using to deploy it. The traditional aid model is top down, where a large organization or the government provides a lot of funding and resources, typically right after a crisis. That model can end up harming the economy that needs help.
Instead, we use a distributed model that creates a product that produces sustainable food year round. We’re making those products out of materials we can source locally in a country, manufacturer locally with materials we buy locally, and then distribute using local labor and community participation.
This model provides economic empowerment every step of the way. Selling these products on a micro credit, which is not a new concept, enables greater investments in the community—it means you can do more with the amount of money you’re using. So, we’re impact-oriented versus handout-oriented.
We’re looking to create sustainable impact, which includes our dollars and how we’re investing in a community. The way we build the organization itself also needs to be sustainable. I’ve seen other nonprofits struggle due to lack of resources and the funding. They end up going grant to grant, donation to donation. Levo is working on building capacity so we can have a sustainable revenue stream that will enable us to sustainably grow and take on risk without having to worry about the organization suddenly coming to a stop.
NAN: Have you had to adjust your business strategy because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, due to COVID-19, Levo has made some sharp adjustments to our strategy. We recently launched our Victory Campaign in the Southern New England area. We’re actively selling “victory gardens,” which are backyard hydroponic systems, in Connecticut. This spring, we’re launching a partnership with Keney Park Sustainability Project to distribute hydroponic technology to food insecure families in Connecticut. I’m excited about the opportunities our systems can provide to help counteract the rising food insecurity this crisis is causing in the United States.
NAN: Let’s talk about how resources at UConn are helping you build the company.
CHRISTIAN: I actually didn’t know a lot about the UConn entrepreneurial community going in. I’m studying Applied and Resource Economics with a concentration in International Development at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. It’s relevant to the work I’m doing at Levo, but has nothing to do with building a business in terms of management, clarifying your vision, refining your business model, and improving upon the business operation in general.
As an inexperienced entrepreneur, participating in many of the different programs UConn runs provided me with a lot of experience about how to run a business, public speaking, pitching, and presenting.
I’ve been involved with the Innovation Quest (iQ) program at UConn and my experience with XcellR8 helped prepare me for the a Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) Summer Fellowship and helped me become a finalist at the Wolff New Venture Competition.
Learning to pitch my business was is essential. Being able to present your business is something a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with and resources at UConn have been a great help with that. The network and resources CCEI and UConn alum and Nerac President Kevin Bouley bring to student entrepreneurs are incredible. It’s enabled me to build a network I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own.
NAN: What are your plans for Levo after you graduate?
CHRISTIAN: I expect to work full-time for Levo when I graduate. We already have a full-time team in Haiti and we have a fantastic product development team in the United States. We’ve been building out our administration and our management and marketing teams. We’ve got a great board of directors.
Our main focus this year is around product development. We applied for patents for our hydroponic systems in fall 2019. We currently have 28 of our Babylon Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) systems operating in Haiti. By the end of this year, our expectation is to have 100 systems installed, operating, and collecting data in at least one other country in addition to Haiti and the United States. We’ll be testing those new designs and our scalability so we can prove that it’s an actual innovation.
Right now, we’re bringing on team members and staff. By the beginning of the summer, we hope to have a couple of paid staff in the U.S. versus an all-volunteer team. We’re really at a tipping point right now as an organization. By the time I graduate in 2021, my expectation is that Levo will be a fully operating organization that is less reliant on volunteers. This is a is a big push for us moving from startup to organization to business.
Photo 1: Levo International Founder Christian Heiden in front of four Babylon Systems in Haiti.
Photo 2: Christian (in hat) with two Levo hydroponic technicians in Haiti.
Photo 3: Volunteer Josh Vallera (left) works with Christian (right) to install a victory garden in Connecticut.