Phospholutions flourishes with the aid of local startup resources
Hunter Swisher does not come across as a “plant geek.” Rather, the 23-year old CEO of Phospholutions comes across as poised, engaging and wise beyond his years. His passion for his field, however, shines through immediately.
Hunter founded Phospholutions before he completed his undergraduate studies at Penn State, but his preoccupation with plants stretches back to his high school days. The company’s initial offering, RhizoSorb™, has already made a splash in the lucrative Ornamental Plants — everything from greenhouses to cannabis production — and Turf Grass — golf courses and athletic fields — spaces. RhizoSorb™ works by soaking up and controlling the release of key plant nutrients over time, allowing roots to stretch deeper into the soil. This offers a cost effective, long-lasting impact on root growth, which in turn results in better quality plants that require fewer chemical applications.
Hunter came across the technology that would become RhizoSorb™ while he was a sophomore in college. He couldn’t understand why the technology, which was developed by one of his professors, had yet to be commercialized given its potential as a powerful, green alternative to standard fertilizers and chemicals. In his “spare” time outside of his 18-credit course load and research, he managed to make a key development in the manufacturing process that allowed him to change the business model and price point on the product. With science and passion behind him, Hunter stood poised to make an impact, but had no idea where to start.
Taking Advantage of Every Resource
Hunter reached out to his advisor about what he should do next and was referred to Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar and Entrepreneurship Coordinator for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State Mark Gagnon. By working with Mark, Hunter came up with a basic business plan, and prepared for the Ag Springboard Competition, a $7,500 pitch competition in the College of Agriculture at Penn State. Although he didn’t win, it brought him into direct competition with his current partner—who did win for another idea—Benjamin Nason.
Ag Springboard offered Hunter his first real opportunity to refine and share his idea, and provided him the basis to apply for the Summer Founder’s Program at Happy Valley LaunchBox. Participants receive $10,000 in funding, mentorship, a place to work and networking opportunities. The sole requirement is to stay in State College, Pennsylvania, and focus on their project for the summer. Hunter views being accepted into the program as, “the biggest game changer of [his] life, to this day,” as it provided him validation that his idea had the potential to become a viable business.
In addition to participating in the Summer Founders Program, Phospholutions was part of the second cohort of LaunchBox’s FastTrack Accelerator. In the Accelerator, Hunter learned everything from business models to running a lean startup, and he fine-tuned his pitch and presented it repeatedly to a wide variety of audiences. He credits the experience with helping him move out of the “technical bubble” so he could refine his value proposition and make key decisions about the business model. For example, instead of manufacturing the product, as he’d initially believed he’d be doing, his experience with LaunchBox helped him alter his approach. Now, rather than managing the manufacturing process, Hunter and Ben instead focus on marketing and education around the company’s mission of reducing the environmental impact of fertilizer, as well as developing new technologies, such as a fertilizer generated as a byproduct of pulling nutrients out of polluted waste streams that can be applied in a form that will never re-enter waterways.
After completing the programs offered by LaunchBox, Hunter decided to drop his other pursuits to focus fully on Phospholutions. The next opportunity came from the TechCelerator hosted by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, which Hunter describes as moving from LaunchBox’s model of, “you have an idea, let’s create a product,” to “you have the product, now let’s figure out how you’re going to commercialize it.” Through TechCelerator’s 10-week boot camp, he learned about pro formas, fundraising and other advanced business tools and strategies.
Fully embracing every advantage available to him in Central Pennsylvania, Hunter shares that he has utilized resources including the Penn State Small Business Development Center in Innovation Park, PennTAP, which hosted Inc.U pitch competitions that Phospholutions won, and WPSU’s “The Investment.”
Hunter graduated from both college and the TechCelerator in the fall of 2016. Leveraging these robust regional resources, along with the Penn State network, he proceeded to license his patents in May of 2017, and Phospholutions made its first big sale to Penn State one month later in June 2017.
Less than a year later, Phospholutions has continued to leverage their network and lessons learned at LaunchBox and TechCelerator to achieve $50,000 in pitch competition winnings, $100,000 in sales and make a formal partnership with global chemical manufacturer BASF Corporation for manufacturing, order fulfillment, research, co-promotion and support to target the agriculture space with new products and technologies. Phospholutions has also benefited from continued investment and support from Ben Franklin, including HR support, accounting, business consulting and other free business resources, and LaunchBox, which provides space to work, support from the Intellectual Property Clinic out of the Penn State Law School and the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic.
Advice from the Trenches
With an ambitious — and on track — goal of $1 million in sales for 2018, Phospholutions is poised for success. In spite of these initial achievements, Hunter stays grounded and displays an understanding of lessons that can take many years to learn. He describes the process of adapting his business model as involving many “pivots.”
“I call them pivots. You run into a wall, and say, ‘Oh, yup, that is definitely not going to work. Well, now what?’ So it’s going back and figuring out what is going to work. Go back to the drawing board. My first business model was, ‘we’re going to make the product.’ I quickly realized I wasn’t equipped to do that. So then I realized, ‘I can go buy it from someone who makes it.’ Then it was, ‘I’m going to sell it myself.’ But then I realized there’s only one me, and a mature market with relationship-based sales. So, now I sell through established distributors, but why aren’t they buying product faster? And we realized we needed to educate those buyers so they want to buy the product. We’ve continually taken on a problem as it occurs, and we find a solution to it to move forward.”
He also advocates for his fellow entrepreneurs to be unafraid of asking questions, unabashedly admitting that he, “doesn’t know it all.”
“Ask for help,” he advises. “It’s probably the most useful thing you can do, and you don’t really know until you ask. I will ask, and if you want to tell me no, then it’s fine. I’ll sometimes ask for outrageous things, because I could be shut down, or all of a sudden I could have it happen.”