Born in Cumaná, Venezuela, Edmundo “Eddie” Hernandez came to the United States when he was four years old. His parents brought their family when they immigrated to Miami from their home country in South America. While Eddie grew up and attended school in Florida and North Carolina, he always remained close with his family in Venezuela, returning every summer to live with his grandparents and keep his Spanish language skills sharp until he was 17.
“It’s hard to go back now,” he says. “It’s hard to get in and out as a dual citizen, and there’s been massive inflation for over a decade that has forced many young Venezuelans to leave the country.”
Eddie, however, is hopeful about Venezuela’s future and would like to return someday when the time is right. Until then, he plans on working at the intersection of agriculture and technology, always with an eye toward starting new businesses.
Eddie has recently joined the Tech Launch Arizona team as our latest Entrepreneurial Fellow – a group of graduate students who work with startup teams to help them move towards a successful launch while building their own technology commercialization experience.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Eddie about his life, what has brought him to this point, and his future plans.
TLA: What is your strongest memory of Venezuela? What do you miss most?
HERNANDEZ: My strongest memories are of waking up early every morning to have breakfast with my grandmother and my uncles and aunts that would drop by before work to do the same. Everyone would gather around a small bar-type table to take turns having coffee and a small breakfast. We typically enjoyed café con leche, which is made with equal parts strong espresso and a very pasteurized milk with a distinctive taste. To eat, we would typically have fresh eggs, local fruit such as mango, jobito, or pineapple, a soft and delicious white cheese called queso de mano, and “cachapas” - Venezuelan corn pancakes made from just-crushed kernels. I will always fondly remember sitting close together with my family and answering their questions about school, sports, and my plans for the future.
TLA: What drew you to become a TLA Entrepreneurial Fellow?
HERNANDEZ: When I saw the position listed online, I was looking for opportunities to get funded for the 2021-2022 academic year. This seemed like a terrific opportunity, especially in tandem with my plans to join the New Venture Development Program at the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. I wanted to deepen my knowledge of agriculture and entrepreneurship, and this position seemed like a clever way to do exactly that.
As I’ve experienced the day-to-day rhythm and started working closely with Mentor-in-Residence Steven Wood, this role has started to look a lot like the consulting work I’ve done in the past – helping startups look for connections and companies to help them grow.
TLA has been an opportunity to deepen my experiential knowledge in relation to entrepreneurship without the full-on risk of starting a new company myself. This fellowship is really solidifying my understanding of the entire entrepreneurial process with hands-on experience across many different companies.
TLA: Tell us about your background and your experience with entrepreneurship.
HERNANDEZ: I majored in political science and international studies and minored in math during my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Originally, I wanted to do statistical polling and work for an organization like Nielsen or FiveThirtyEight. At that time I thought I was destined for corporate life where I would rise through the ranks into the leadership of a large enterprise.
Things shifted when I got a job working for a consultancy after my undergrad. I covered agriculture and industrial products in that position, and it got me thinking more about how I'd like to start my own company one day. Working for someone else, I always felt like there were shortcuts being taken – ones that weren’t beneficial to me OR the company. I would see things being done that didn’t necessarily serve the employees as individuals or the company as a whole.
Learning about agriculture led me to get involved in AgriFacture, a family business in North Carolina growing lettuce. We wanted to cultivate the crop indoors, but the level of sophistication needed to do that was beyond the technology and expertise we had. That’s when I had my first taste of “en-trepreneurship,” and really advocated for shifting focus to a different product: oyster mushrooms. They grow well indoors with simpler controlled environment systems, so we could do more with less, essentially. That was my first experience of having an idea that really changed the direction of business, and it helped us get to our first revenue. Today the company is expanding, and they have invited me to come back to North Carolina upon graduation.
TLA: What has working in the Applied Biosciences, Controlled Environment Agriculture track been like? How has it shaped your path? Have you worked with any specific faculty who have inspired you?
HERNANDEZ: Working in Applied Biosciences Controlled Environment Agriculture has felt like a real validation of my goals in coming to Arizona for graduate school. I’ve deepened my knowledge related to botany, mycology, entomology, and automated systems for controlling environments. This year entrepreneurship will be my focus since the program requires a near-even split of sciences and professional development.
The first person that got me thinking about entrepreneurship for my professional development credits was Dr. Emre Toker. He offered to have a standing meeting with me when his class didn’t fill, and he challenged me to think about what kind of company I’d like to build in the future. He talked to me about fast scaling versus lifestyle companies, and the kinds of strengths I’d build into an organization. He made me question everything! He drove me to apply to the McGuire program, for which I’ve already managed to form a team around the idea of a consumer-packaged product with a focus on plant or fungi-based nutraceutical ingredients, and I’m excited to see where our ideas take us.
TLA: So on that note, what is it about entrepreneurship that attracts you?
HERNANDEZ: I enjoy the idea of starting systems that feed into themselves and become something that benefits others. Entrepreneurship is about planning ahead and setting those things in motion; it’s not necessarily about doing every single piece.
The idea is that once you build something and get it off the ground, the goal is to have it scale and grow into becoming something you never thought it would be. That’s exciting to me.
TLA: What’s next once you finish your studies?
HERNANDEZ: I don’t think I’m going to go right out and launch a startup, but I do have a great team of peers that are working towards coming up with a great product and we’re going to see where that takes us.
My greater aspiration is still to build and maintain an indoor farm focused on cultivating plant and fungi-based medicinals. The McGuire New Venture Development program is great because I’m going to build a company that would, theoretically, use the products I might sell in the future. The startup I want to do might purchase those products from my farm to create nutritional and wellness products for consumers.
We’re still working on the idea itself and deciding exactly what the business will be, but I want to create a wellness product based on great science that inspires trust in our customers.
TLA: Did you come here with a plan in place or are you building the path as you go?
HERNANDEZ: Before deciding to come to Arizona, I didn’t know that I would ever do a master's. My wife said, “Go for it,” and she really pushed me to seek out great opportunities in my field while she studied in her own. I found my program, the PSM in Applied Biosciences during that search, and it’s been such an amazing gift. The first year was tough financially, but now I’ve gotten funding from McGuire and TLA, and I’ll also have research funding from Barry Pryor’s lab in the School of Plant Sciences.
I never dreamed that I’d be funded based on the work and research that I do, so this is all new for me. It has felt wonderful and validating; it’s great to know that someone has given me their vote of confidence.
Interested in Becoming a Student Entrepreneurial Fellow?
In addition to the experience that TLA provides through the program, Eddie will also receive one of six $10,000 tuition scholarships provided by the Graduate College for participants in the program, with $5,000 awarded at the beginning of each academic semester. If you are a UArizona graduate student and interested in the opportunity, we invite you to inquire.