Entrepreneur contest winner creates mobile garden project worth $1 million


Michael Clark

Justin Connell, a former City College student and winner of the Scheinfeld Center business plan competition.

Scott Buffon, Staff Writer

When Justin Connell cracked a vertebra during  Vaqueros basketball game last fall, he ignored the pain and kept playing.  After weeks of battling back pain and depression, he realized that he was going to have to refocus his drive from his dream of playing college basketball into something different.

Connell began to invest his free time into an entrepreneurial idea of a mobile garden called “Garden on Wheelz,” which is now worth $1 million. He is the undisputed star of Santa Barbara City College’s Entrepreneur Program.

“If I hadn’t hurt my back, I wouldn’t have had the perspective of being immobile,” said Connell, who won the SBCC Entrepreneur Launch contest last month.  “I’ve always been a healthy young athletic kid. [The injury] really gave me the opportunity to step away from my life and really focus on being able to make this happen.”

Garden on Wheelz is a mobile garden elevated 38 inches from the ground. One prototype shows the mobile garden in a simple wooden cart with a wheelbarrow-like construction. It contains a self-draining system that can recycle the used water. The garden can be raised or lowered for people with physical disabilities and moved to ensure the best lighting for plants. It also has a soil bed that contains enough gardening space to produce 36 pounds of fresh produce every year.

Connell developed a simplified version of the garden on wheels from his professor and eventual business partner Dr. Jon Anton, a former adjunct professor at Purdue University.

“Dr. Jon Anton had the idea for a garden on wheels, but I had a vision that was totally different from his,” he said.  “My vision was to make [Garden on Wheelz] out of recycled plastic that could be shipped across the country and sold to every assisted living home and every big retail store in the country.”

The two business partners had different opinions on how to market the product, so Connell bought out Anton so that the product was entirely his to innovate.

After creating a prototype, Connell’s first chance to show his product was at the Enterprise Launch Demo Day in Fall 2011, in which he placed first.

The Demo Day was set up by City College’s Scheinfeld Center ,which also hosts the New Venture Challenge, another event in the spring that gives students an opportunity to test out their entrepreneurial ideas for a cash prize.

Melissa Moreno, director of the Scheinfeld Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, has helped many entrepreneurial students like Connell achieve their business goals.

“Our tagline is “dream, plan, profit,” Moreno said.  “We inspire students through our events to get them thinking about ideas and innovation. We provide an environment where students can learn about entrepreneurship, and the profit part is the resources that we offer to help students get their businesses started up or taken to the next level.”

When the New Venture Challenge started in May 2012, Connell was more than prepared. He swept through the competition to earn experience with pitching his idea, develop multiple contacts—and win the $5,000 first prize.

Through one of the contacts he met at the New Venture Challenge, he was introduced to his designer John Stump, who has been “a catalyst” behind moving the Garden on Wheelz to the next level.

“People always say that when preparation meets opportunity, that’s luck,” says Connell.  “I think that’s what happened. I prepared myself so well that once I had an opportunity I was able to capitalize on it.”

After securing Stump as a designer, Connell was able to find strategic investors who acquired 25 percent of his company for $250,000.  The money he earned from his deal has been transferred into funding the production process which is now only three to five weeks away.

“Basically my whole life did a 180,” said Connell.  “I went from being like every other kid in the country doing the whole four year degree and hoping that in four years I’ll find a job, to really manifesting my own destiny and creating a job for myself. I’ll be paying people salaries and helping the American economy at 20 years old.”