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UT Alumni Create Sustainable Fish Tank

By LIZ MACLEAN

Djimo Serodio, ‘15, is putting his entrepreneurship degree to good use by starting his own company, Just Grow. Along with the company’s chief operating officer, Bekah Vigil, ‘16, Serodio created a product called Malawi that is completely sustainable. Part fish tank and part garden, Malawi is about 1.3 square feet, perfect for a small urban apartment (or even a dorm room).

“It’s a technology called aquaponics, and essentially it’s a bacteria process where fish waste is turned into plant food, and in exchange for that food, the plants filter the water back for the fish,” Serodio said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. That’s how nature does things, so it’s not really artificial, it’s just induced by technology, and smaller.”

Just Grow’s sole product, Malawi, is trademarked and soon-to-be patent pending. It is named after Lake Malawi in Southern Africa because it houses more freshwater fish than any other lake in the world, and is also one of the oldest lakes in the world. The fish tank comes in several different Apple Inc.-inspired colors, from black to silver to white. Serodio hopes to have multiple fish tank sizes in the future, along with an app that tells the owner the pH, temperature and nutrients in the water.

The fish tank uses no soil and needs watering as little as once a month, depending on what is grown in the tank. All the owner needs to do is plant seeds and harvest the vegetables. For the fish, there is no need to replace the water, as one normally does with a regular fish tank.

Malawi produces mostly leafy green vegetables like red leaf lettuce, bok choy and other “gourmet” greens, according to Serodio. Herbs like basil, parsley and cilantro can also be grown on Malawi, along with ornamental plants.

“Essentially, the beauty of this product is that it’s super low-maintenance,” Serodio said. “It’s easier to operate this product compared to just operating a fish tank or just operating a garden, so they actually offset a few maintenance problems such as watering and fertilizing, as well as mess and dirt.”

Malawi can house many types of freshwater fish, from guppies to goldfish, malis to platies. Crabs, snails, shrimp and other bottom feeders can also be housed in the fish tank.

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Just Grow is in the soft-launch phase of Malawi and is aiming to sell the 50 prototypes they produced. The team hopes to gain followers and customers in Tampa specifically.

“I think this product specifically could make a really strong statement for Tampa as a city that has a ridiculous rate of new residents every single month,” Vigil said. “The increase in development in the city can’t be ignored. By that token, we want to bring a piece of nature back into spaces and specifically a sustainable cycle to help people reconnect with their food and think a little bit differently about how that can work in their space.”

The fish tank is already present in five different elementary and middle schools, and Serodio and Vigil hope to get it into at least 20 others.

“We’re testing the ability to implement these systems in classrooms for the purpose of teaching students through engagement and through inquiry and to foster interest and curiosity,” Serodio said. “We are in early talks with professors in the science wing to implement this system in the lab. That’s not confirmed, but it’s definitely one of our objectives: to wrap up this semester with a system in a university classroom.”

James Plummer, a senior biology major, is an intern for Just Grow. Plummer is passionate about Just Grow and its Malawi fish tank because he feels that the symbiotic relationship between the fish and the plants are symbolic of the relationship between humans and nature: they both must work together and feed off one another to survive.

“As team lead for our academics department, I have been collaborating with a handful of other science majors who have been working feverishly to produce content for teachers to use in the classroom,” Plummer said. “We are producing as much material as possible to make every step of the setup and growing process a learning experience because there are limitless opportunities to learn more about the world around us.”

Serodio started Just Grow in May 2015 and comprises a team of about 30 interns, many of whom go to UT and work in the marketing, academic and business departments of the company. The engineers at Just Grow are from USF. Because the company is growing and developing, and because most of the interns are college students, Serodio and Vigil are always looking for UT students who are interested in joining their team.

As for the future, Serodio and Vigil hope their product will make a difference in the way people in urban areas think and function.

“Indoor gardening space is a market we want to tap into and hopefully dominate,” said Serodio. “But our core mission is to increase the transition into sustainable food production. Most people are really disconnected from the food supply chain and how food is grown and distributed, and we hope to raise awareness around those problems and inspire change.”

Plummer also hopes that Malawi will educate people about their connection to the environment and encourage them to find sustainable ways of living.

The growing global population demands that we take more sustainable routes to feeding ourselves,” Plummer said. “I could go on for days talking about food and the environment and all I want is for people to get curious about what is really going on in the world around us.”

Serodio and Vigil will be at the New Venture Expo at UT on Friday, April 14 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the Entrepreneurship Center on the eighth floor of the Innovative Collaboration Building. Other Spartan start-ups will be attending the expo as well. For more information, email jabishop@ut.edu or follow the University of Tampa Lowth Entrepreneurship Center on Facebook.

Liz MacLean can be reached at liz.maclean@theminaretonline.com.

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