Andrew Dubis, Guest Writer
Peter Webb, class of 2015, used the skills he learned at the University of Missouri–St. Louis to found an ed-tech startup focused on engaging the next generation of farmers and problem-solvers.
Webb’s startup, MARSfarm, builds project-based learning kits that allow teachers and their students to grow plants inside of the classroom, year-round. However, these aren’t your everyday classroom gardens. These kits are about the size of an old school popcorn maker and use software to control environmental conditionsfactors. With this combination of hardware and software, you can control things like temperature, humidity, and how much light the plant receives.
Pretty cool stuff, but where did this idea come from?
Well, Webb has always been interested in bringing agriculture indoors. He started with a simple bedroom setup of one light that hung over a pot of soil. This method worked, but eventually, he started to go on more work trips for his full-time job and didn’t have anyone to water his plants while he was away. With no one there to look after his fruits and veggies, Webb started looking for ways to use technology to monitor his plants.
A light bulb turned on, literally and figuratively, when he came across a community of people doing the same thing. He quickly realized that there was an opportunity to take this idea and make a company out of it.
Webb received his bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis in information systems. This combination of information systems and agriculture allowed him to cater his startup to teach multiple subjects like math, engineering and biology. When asked why teaching these subjects is important, as it relates to the future of food, Webb responded, “By the year 2050 we will have to feed 10 billion people but with less resources… the biggest way I can make an impact is by inspiring students who are interested in technology to pursue careers in agriculture. My passion for doing so is why I founded MARSfarm with my co-founder Drew Thomas and is why we [MARSfarm] continue to grow.”
Growing is a big theme in Webb’s world and at MARSfarm. Not only do they continue to grow plants, but MARSfarm also continues to grow employees as well. Since the creation of the company in 2016, they have hired three full-time employees and have run two internship programs. The last round of interns featured a student from UMSL’s Communication Department.
UMSL has clearly played a big role in Webb’s success and has helped him gain the knowledge he needed to start his own company. A few classes and experiences have stuck out in particular from his time at UMSL. He mentioned that his strategic management class was very eye-opening because the teacher often brought in quality guest speakers that had a lot of experience in the business world. Webb also mentioned that the Excel class all business students have to take helped him out tremendously as he uses Excel every day to make spreadsheets for MARSfarm and for personal use.
If you are curious about the future of MARSfarm, Webb had one more inspiring quote to give, “MARSfarm will continue to focus on engaging students in the world of STEM and agriculture while also giving back to local communities whenever possible.” In fact, MARSfarm has a community outreach exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center, in the GROW gallery. GROW is a whole gallery dedicated to educating people about plants, animals and the food system. The greenhouse at GROW and the MARSfarm exhibit shows how people are using technology to automate food production.
MARSfarm is also currently working with a few schools in the St. Louis area. One of the schools, Fox High, has been working with their systems for two years now. There are also other schools in St. Louis that teach similar types of subjects. For example, Steger elementary combines technology with aquaponics. Actually, MARSfarm and Steger elementary were recently featured in a documentary, called the “Future of Farming,” which showcases how certain people across the United States are using open source technology to grow food and collect data.
It is always great to see UMSL alumni doing cool things in business and the community!