This 22-Year-Old Is Way More Worldly Than You

July 8, 2013

11:00 am

At 16, Sanjay Kumar Rajpoot had already been accepted to Columbia University and then thrown out for some of his “extracurricular” activities. But instead of returning home to California, he stayed in New York and lived among the homeless for a week.

He just “meandered,” he recalls. He didn’t call his family. And he met homeless PhDs who had chosen that destiny for themselves. “Some of them were practically brilliant and they just gave up on life,” he recalls.

That experience only reinforced his desire to help people, which had been inculcated by his doctor parents. As a child, he had gone with them on humanitarian missions to India, and he enjoyed seeing people become more empowered and independent.

Today, Rajpoot is channeling those desires into Sustainable Microfarms, a 10-person business creating hydroponics and aeroponics technologies for farmers. Their control systems automatically monitor things like temperature and pH, cutting down on manual labor. Compared to traditional agriculture, they use 90 percent less water and 70 percent less nutrients but still get 10 times the productivity.

The company hopes to bring these technologies to rural villages in Africa and India, where farmers lack some of the most basic farming tools like hoes and fertilizer. He’s in talks with several NGOs now, and launching a Kickstarter campaign next week.

Rajpoot’s story isn’t your typical one, going from the five-year-old fiddling with computers to the teenager building prototypes. There was certainly some of that – he worked on a data mining project and was already watching documentaries on sustainable agriculture at age 16. He took college courses during high school in physics, calculus, and chemistry. But he also explored other paths, namely cooking and sports.

Before 17, Rajpoot had already tried his hand at starting an Indian-Portuguese food truck and a paintball park in Orange County. But what really excited him was MMA fighting. While taking those early college classes, he would also spend six+ hours per day at the gym.

“I’m kind of a black sheep,” says Rajpoot. “I was always trying to achieve something or be different in one way or another, and I never even noticed that I was. I didn’t think that what most people thought about was that interesting.”

He was on the cusp of going pro when he tore his knee in a fight.

“Pretty much in one day, I did a life pivot,” he recalls. His leg, which felt like a “wet noodle” that day, wouldn’t be competing in more MMA fights.

Since then, technology has had the upper hand in his life. He majored in chemical and nano-technology engineering at the University of Southern California, even working a job as a janitor so he could do an unpaid research project on hydroponics. He immersed himself in the hydroponics industry, meeting its leading figures and biggest corporations. And when business challenges frustrate him, he finds solace in books on quantum mechanics and particle physics.

But whether he’s an agricultural technologist or an MMA fighter or a food truck owner, Rajpoot remembers something his father taught him. “Everything you do is for society, and that’s why you get paid,” says Rajpoot. “The same thing really applies in terms of entrepreneurship.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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