Dan Robson will always remember the moment he clinched the first order for his SeedCell product; although the efforts to fulfil that order are perhaps even more memorable.
“I had made a prototype of the SeedCell and went along to a trade show – I came away with an order for 3000 and no idea how we were going to make that many,” Dan smiles.
“It was all very ‘Wallace and Gromit’ – myself, my family, friends, anyone who would lend a hand, all crammed into a shed, making Seedcells one by one. But we did it, and days later, we were on sale alongside massive names like Suttons and Mr Fothergill’s.”
Wind forward barely a couple of years and Dan’s Seedcell product – a unique invention which offers a 100 per cent biodegradable way to plant seeds, and helps to sustain appropriate levels of temperature and moisture to achieve optimum growing conditions – is on sale around the UK, thanks to major deals with Homebase and B&Q, as well as being stocked by hundreds of independent outlets.
Dan’s Green Digit business has recently signed a distribution agreement in the United States for the award-winning SeedCell, is in talks to expand into Europe, and has attracted the attention of the likes of Sir
Jonathan Ive, the esteemed chief designer at Apple, for whom fellow Northumbria University design graduate Dan fittingly made an apple SeedCell.
Dan has recently relocated the business from the Northern Design Centre, expanding into an 1800 sq ft industrial unit in Gateshead, where he and his brother Joe make and package their SeedCells – which are available in a variety of herbs, vegetables and flowers, as well as the recently launched Grow Your Own Christmas Tree – although one notable difference to the early days is that the products are now made by machine.
Showing off the impressive-looking machine, which was specially designed and created by the young entrepreneur and his engineer business partner, Dan says: “This is our equivalent of the KFC Herbs and Spices, it’s the ‘secret ingredient’ to our success and has been quite a while in the making. The days of our makeshift production line in the shed are gone but everything is done by us, here in the North East.”
It was while Dan, who is originally from Bristol but moved to Hartlepool as a teenager, was on his Design for Industry course at Northumbria that the concept of SeedCell first came into being. Being tasked to develop an idea for a product, Dan realised during the course of his research how much plastic packaging was used in retailing seeds. Alongside studying for his MA, Dan was also gearing up for the launch of his fledgling venture.
“I was cramming in as many shifts at End Clothing in Newcastle as I could get, too, so I could put some money into it, but at that point you have really no idea how it is going to go. It was in January 2014, two days after handing in my thesis and while I was still quite hungover, that it seemed a good idea to properly start working on Green Digit full time,” he says.
The business went on to secure funding from Rivers Capital, and alongside money saved up from Dan’s part-time job and cash borrowed from his dad, the foundations were in place for its growth. From securing that first independent distributor agreement, Green Digit has gone from strength to strength, continually adding more new outlets across the UK, and recently striking a deal with Homebase to retail in an initial 240 stores, while being trialled in 120 B&Qs. Discussions are ongoing with distributors around the world.
Certainly, SeedCell has been a phenomenon which has taken the gardening industry by storm. But what about the produce SeedCell creates? Dan responds enthusiastically: “Our tomatoes and peppers are coming on nicely; we already have two massive tomatoes, and our Christmas tree is coming on really well, too.”
“I’ll always remember the first tomato we grew in our window box at the Northern Design Centre. It was really quite impressive; we sat around looking at it for quite some time and we cut it up with a knife and fork so Joe and I could try it. For people like us, who knew nothing about how to grow things, it was so easy, and that’s what SeedCell is about and why – thankfully – it is proving so popular.”