‘Trust your own vision — experience doesn’t mean they have a better vision, just better methods to get there. If you make a mistake it is not the end of the line but an opportunity to learn. You will be tested along your journey but standing firm on your vision will lead you to build a company no one saw coming, that’s where a lot of unique value is found.’
Luke Young is the CEO and co-founder of Agrisea — an ocean agriculture company that works to solve world hunger by designing and implementing a truly sustainable food system through ocean agriculture. Luke is a graduate from Durham University, in the UK, and founded the company with Rory Hornby, also a Durham University graduate. Luke is also now a mentor for students at Durham University’s new Hazan Venture Lab for young entrepreneurs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Luke! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
The first part of my life was in a small town in the south of England with my older brother and sister, my Mum and my Dad. I spent as much time as I possibly could outside and was always enthralled by the world around me. I had an innate curiosity for science and would always be the kid asking “but why?” questions.
After 11 years in the South, my family and I moved to North Yorkshire where we settled in a very small, rural village just north of York, England. I attended a local school, nothing special, but my love for science grew day-by-day. At the end of my secondary education I got the opportunity to go to Durham University!
University was a turning point in my life. I had the chance to really learn something new and test my boundaries. I was lucky enough to join an expedition in Honduras after my first year, spending the remainder of my summer as a Wellcome Trust Biomedical scholar. The hardest moment during university was upon the return to my second year. My best friend of 8 years, someone I considered as close as family, lost his fight with cancer; he was 20. Seeing someone close to me pass away so young shifted my entire perspective on life. What if that happened to me tomorrow? It made me question why I was alive at all — why was I on this planet? I questioned my purpose for months, trying to find an answer. As I searched for an answer, I started my Master’s Degree at the same university, focusing on plant genetics and hormone regulation. Unfortunately, the belief that I would be able to apply my research to the real world fell short when my own project was rejected and I had to choose from a list created by the department. Even though my Master’s was an exciting experience, I found myself frustrated by the pace of development and constraints of institutional research.
This was the moment I decided to build a start-up with the hope of changing the world.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
We are the Ocean Agriculture company! We are solving world hunger by growing rice on the ocean.
We designed a way to activate the ancestral salt tolerance that exists within all crops to allow them to thrive in ocean saltwater just as seagrasses and mangroves can. Starting with rice, but later expanding to all crops, we will create farms on the ocean with floating platforms that hold the plants in place while their roots dip into the saltwater and grow as ocean hydroponic plants.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I decided that I wanted to solve one of the largest problems that prevents our world from becoming truly sustainable. The UN sustainable development goals provide a collection of these problems for the world to solve. For me, “No Hunger” stood out above all the rest. Solving world hunger will give more people the freedom to live, grow and solve other problems facing our society.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Losing my friend, Sammy.
He was so influential in my life before he passed, he had many hopes and such a bright future ahead of him. He may not have realized it but he taught me a lot.
Sammy’s passing, made me realise the fragility of mortality and question my own existence. I hope by sharing such a personal story, other people who may have been questioning whether to begin with an idea will take that first step.
The summer of 2018 I was flying to Norway with a couple of friends. During the flight I was looking out the window and saw a tanker in the middle of the ocean. Normally, these ships are 1000 ft long and 200 ft wide, but from the sky it was less than a centimeter in size and was the only visible object for hundreds of kilometers. In that moment I realized the sheer opportunity the ocean had and the concept for Agrisea was born!
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
In the beginning, I had no idea where to start.
First, I figured out my “why”. This is the most important part. It fuels your determination and keeps you going through the amazing ups and unexpected downs. I found my “why” after I questioned why I exist. I imagined myself reflecting on my life as an old man — I exist because I believe in creating a lasting positive impact.
Then I found a problem (i.e.: world hunger). Build a company on a problem, not a product. I removed all previous assumptions, about the problem and its previously attempted solutions, and started from scratch, learning everything I could. I learned through reading literature, creating new theories to test and talking to experts. I talked to anyone who will listen! Not only can it help you add structure to your idea, it’s a great way to find a community!
Finally, I took the risk — a terrifying and essential, step. A strategy my dad gave me to help overcome this was to put a time frame on it. I gave myself a year to have the freedom to try and either fail or succeed. The time frame allowed me to escape the responsibility that society imposes on you to get a stable job and start earning money. I also took this risk at a point in my life where my actions wouldn’t affect other people in a detrimental way, which helped alleviate some pressure. I sought incubators and accelerators too, as both can provide you with the initial support to comfortably enter the entrepreneurial world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting moment for me was when I was in San Francisco in the Herbst Theater pitching at IndieBio’s Demo Day. While standing on stage pitching Agrisea to over two thousand people, it hit me just how far I had come since I was drawing out the first designs of Agrisea at my bedroom desk back in England.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
The first time I met one of our investors was when he was on one of the first panels at IndieBio. I chatted with him afterward and later sat down to formally pitch Agrisea. He proceeded to ask me a bunch of questions, most of which I couldn’t sufficiently answer. But he believed in us, gave us many pointers and tips and ended up investing in Agrisea. We also bonded over being British in the US! Looking back, I laugh because I expected myself to know so much more than I possibly could at that stage. But there’s always something new to learn and that will always excite me!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
A huge thank you has to go to my family. I always say my mum taught me compassion and my dad taught me grit and determination. Without these two I wouldn’t be the person I am today. A minor part of what they taught me over my life but both these traits were critical in building Agrisea. My brother and sister too, for always being a sounding board and there for support. My sister early on gave me a lot of support when it was only a barebones idea and my brother has reminded me to breathe once in a while!
Early on I had some great mentors that taught me the foundations of business, thank you Marek Tokarski, from Durham University.
In an obscure way, I’ve learned many other skills or traits from reading about entrepreneur’s lives or watching their interviews. The honest interviews of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have inspired me as I made decisions that formed the foundation of Agrisea.
What are your “3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share stories or examples for each.
1. Start Earlier
I have had ideas all my life that could be products, in fact I have a little bound book from the past 10 years that I hope to work through. I had the idea of Agrisea during university but didn’t take the plunge to try it until the very end. Even though university life is busy and sometimes difficult, it’s the perfect time to build a company. So take that leap today.
2. Trust your own vision — experience doesn’t mean they have a better vision, just better methods to get there. If you make a mistake it is not the end of the line but an opportunity to learn. You will be tested along your journey but standing firm on your vision will lead you to build a company no one saw coming, that’s where a lot of unique value is found.
3. Make little jumps to your prototype, not one big leap.
I was aiming for the moon with our first prototype, we could have moved a lot faster had we tried for smaller, shorter steps towards the prototype than doing it in one big leap.
Bonus Extra: “Celebrate the victories” — this comes from one of our investors, Alex, he’s a wise and brilliant entrepreneur himself. He advised us to celebrate when we have a win, let it sink in, take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come. I promise you, it will make a difference.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would encourage every person, from every age, every colour, religion, gender, location to ask themselves: “why are you here? Why do you exist?”. It is so important to know the answer to that question. No problem is too big or too small to solve.
Find the question that helps you to understand your mortality, so you can provide the answer. The answer is your mission, through your mission you will find your purpose.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Elon was pinnacle in my decision to make a start-up, he was the first person in my life that proved to me that you could make a living from an idea! He gave the world a clear picture of the good and the bad regarding the life of an entrepreneur. Ultimately, his lifestyle made me realise there was a place where I could belong.
How can our readers follow you online?
Instagram is where I am most active so feel free to follow me @biohackerluke!
You can follow Agrisea on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @weareagrisea! Feel free to tag us as you like.