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Alumni Stories · Economics - Sustainability

Healthy produce gets a fresh start(up) for cold climates

How Dan Perpich planted IMD MBA knowledge in Alaska
February 2016

It was in 2011 while staring at a lettuce head in a small Canadian village called Resolute Bay that Dan Perpich’s idea began to grow. Based in Alaska as an infantry officer in the US army after graduating from West Point, Dan was shocked at how much vegetables cost in Northern Canada and Alaska – lettuce priced at $18 isn’t unheard of. The reason for this is a farm-to-table distance of thousands of miles. This spun an idea of how, despite inclement weather conditions, vegetables might be grown locally in Alaska to cut out the supply chain.

Two years later, Dan left the army and wanted to transition into civilian life plus hone his business skills. He had spent ten years in the army – five as an officer – with a deployment to Afghanistan under his belt. So he signed up for an MBA at IMD “to learn the basics in a classroom setting before going off into the real world.” Dan chose IMD because he believed it to be the best fit for him: he especially liked its small size, an older average student age and an extremely international environment. He also believed the executive focus would expose him to unique situations he wouldn’t see in a traditional program in the U.S.

Dan also especially liked IMD’s emphasis on lifelong learning and approach to problem solving. “I don’t think you can ever truly be an expert at business, it’s too complicated, but I really like that IMD constantly emphasized re-examining processes and learning as a tool to overcome problems.”

After graduating and returning to Alaska, Dan began thinking about the feasibility of a hydroponic vegetable-growing system for use in sub-zero Alaskan temperatures, and he worked out that a shipping container would satisfy a lot of requirements. After taking this idea to horticulturist Cameron Willingham, they got to work on designing a growing system.

Of course they encountered numerous problems along the way. “There’s almost no way to begin to count the problems we have had,” says Dan. “Sometimes I feel like entrepreneurship means you fail every day until you get it right.” But Dan used a lot of the templates, frameworks and models he had brought back from his MBA classes and implemented them into the business planning. He also kept in touch with some of IMD’s professors, who essentially checked his work to make sure he was on the right track “and at least grounded in reality.”

Looking back at his time at IMD, Dan explains that the MBA program gave him the critical classroom structure, resources, support, and education to make the transition smoothly [into civilian life]. “Most veterans don’t end up with the IMD support network and I consider myself extremely lucky in that regard.”

In terms of lessons learned in his life, Dan says he is too young to have any but offers up some advice he will give to his one-year-old son when he grows up. “Some people are smarter than you, some people are stronger than you but they are just born that way and nobody gets to control how hard you work.” He believes that it is the work ethic that yields success and makes the difference.

Certainly his hard work seems to be paying off. Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, which he founded with Cameron Willingham and Linda Janes in June 2014, is set to launch its third generation ‘containerized growing system’ in March. These growing environments in shipping containers using LED technologies, allow producers to grow vegetables 365 days a year, anywhere in Alaska. The system, which can nurture up to 1,800 units, is computer controlled with remote access.

Dan says: “What really excites us about this is the real world impact on people’s lives. This issue of fresh food sourcing has concerned every Alaskan and rural Canadian for decades, and we feel like we can finally contribute towards solving the problem.”

Dan Perpich, along with Linda Janes and Cameron Willingham are the founders of Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. Dan received his MBA from IMD in 2013.

Learn more about IMD’s MBA program.