Feature Stories


Journey of Futurepreneur: Planeteers – How ideas grow from class projects into formidable game-changers in the sustainability movement

With the world's highest number of restaurants per capita, 14 tons of plastic cutlery waste end up in Hong Kong's overflowing landfills every year. The amount of plastic waste has skyrocketed as the volume of food takeaway surged with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is where we meet Planeteers (LinkedIn), one of the many business student start-ups that call HKUST home, whose ambitious mission is to address the issue with 100% vegan, natural and edible cutlery. 

When Aditi DEODHAR (BBA Management, Class of 2022) was a freshman at HKUST Business School, she found herself with the seedling for Planeteers after a marketing class final project on edible cutlery. Captivated by this project's sustainability and social innovation potentials, she hoped to continue developing the idea (and the fun!) outside of the class. Despite her strong desire to make an impact, it would be another two years before she met co-founder Swapnil MISHRA (BBA Economics, Class of 2023) through a student society. Together, they recruited two like-minded peers, Anhad Singh (who withdrew from the project in early 2021) and Srijan Saxena, to kick off the entrepreneurship journey. 

"If I hadn't come to HKUST, I wouldn't have met these wonderful people with the same vision. We are extremely dedicated to the cause, willing to go the extra mile to give our best performance each time," Aditi laughed. 

Winning the Focus Area Award in the HKUST-Sino One Million Dollar Entrepreneurship Competition 2020, the four were on their way as a proper start-up. "We hope to socially innovate a business that is good for society as a whole," Swapnil declared. 

The Business School is for Everyone 

At HKUST, students from all business majors can enroll in minor program(s) offered by the other Schools to supplement their major studies. A wide array of minor programs are available, including Sustainability and the joint-school minor in Entrepreneurship. The interdisciplinary nature of entrepreneurship courses means students will be inspired by professors hailing from different fields of expertise. 

"One of our entrepreneurship class professors helped us design, refine and think practically about our business model. He also shared insights and experiences in other things such as negotiationsrisk assessment, and opportunity costs. A faculty of business sustainability provided us with useful contacts and made the first few connections with bakeries that share our vision of sustainable practices; a professor specializing in environmental sustainability guided us in enhancing the competitiveness of our product, as we are also competing with bamboo, wooden and bioplastic cutlery, who also aim to reduce plastic cutlery," the team shared. 

As an engineering student, Anhad also found the Business School's collaborative approach with the other Schools an eye-opener into the synergetic nature of the innovation process. "I came to HKUST to do research and engineering. I didn't imagine becoming a co-founder of a start-up or doing anything business-related. In fact, I used to dislike the business side of things, but when I came to HKUST, I realized the Business School doesn't exist just for its own sake. While the School of Science or Engineering handles technical requests of innovation, the Business School formulates strategies to bring innovation to people and builds a profitable business model to sustain the back-end research and development. I really like that holistic approach, where we go through A to Z as ourselves, contributing our expertise and interests. That is something special about HKUST, the way the Business School is for the other Schools."  

Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Incubator 

Our dedication to educating socially responsible future leaders and the start-up friendly environment sets us apart from other business schools.  

"HKUST's entrepreneurship environment (is) up-and-coming, as I see a lot of people who want to give back to society alongside getting their degree and starting their businesses. This mindset really differentiates HKUST as a university." Swapnil noted. 

As the only business school in Hong Kong recognized for its social impact and sustainability achievements in the global student-voted Positive Impact Rating 2021, we spare no effort to raise students' awareness of social and global issues and increase their sensitivity and responsibility towards the local and global communities.  For instance, our business core curriculum includes the Business Ethics and Social Responsibility course alongside an extracurricular social services internship program. 

The Business School embraces the entrepreneurial spirit and helps students act upon their ideas. "For a business to take shape, it's not just the people, but also the environment the business is incubating in. HKUST has been instrumental in providing us a supportive and friendly environment we can leverage to move forward, whether it's funding, meeting the right people who can help us build our supply chain. We couldn't have achieved these aspects if we weren't here at HKUST." Swapnil said.  

"This was an important part in the beginning stages of Planeteers, cumulating into what we are today. The initial connections the University helped us make were crucial and provided the foundation to increase our network further. Overall, HKUST is doing a good job in encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, in alignment with the University's vision." Aditi said.  

Future Plans to Save the Planet 

Like with many collaborative efforts, the pandemic saw the team physically separated in their early stages, with Anhad in India for five months in early 2020. "COVID-19 posed a barrier for us, even at the research phase, as lab access has been difficult to obtain. Pilot projects in collaboration with a vegetarian restaurant had to be stopped because of another wave of infections. But we're still better off than a lot of businesses facing similar difficulties!" Making the best of the situation, he focused on gathering research data to share with the team.  

Having formulated their product, which works well with hot food and tastes delicious, they are developing their product baking molds and packaging to help reduce costs and make their product accessible for the masses and affordable to make a greater impact. Simultaneously, the team is working hard on its business development. "We've got a basic prototype (of the enhanced recipe) ready, but we want it to be better. We are also testing the business model, in order to keep the business lean," Aditi shared. The team's efforts enabled them to run a pilot earlier this year as COVID-19 restrictions eased and determine their business model for the Hong Kong market. 

A more significant difficulty the team faces is the lack of understanding of the concepts underpinning Planeteer's vision and existence. "Many people are convinced that convenience is the first aspect to look at for products. Thus, they don't really understand that in the long-term, if there aren't start-ups like ours that envision sustainable futures, society will cease to exist," Aditi shared. "Getting through to everyone is difficult at times, but now, perhaps the cutlery is not for everyone, maybe more for people who are aligned with sustainability and eco-friendly products. Moving on, we hope that people do see that this is to their advantage and society's greater good."

The team's younger members are still considering after-graduation plans, but Aditi, who will graduate in 2022, has expressed her determination to continue with the Planeteers and other projects, alongside experience in the traditional corporate setting. "I envision myself 10 years down the line, with Planeteers with one of many start-ups."

Student Entrepreneurs to Futurepreneurs

 "Don’ keep thinking about doubts - if you can really do it, if people will like it. Don’t’ be afraid to fail – you have a lot of time as a student, so just get on doing things! You’re at a bigger advantage if you are within the HKUST network, as people in the network are very willing to help students start up," 

- Aditi DEODHAR, Class of 2022

"Choose the right people, not the ‘best’ people. See who you work well with, who complements your weaknesses, and be practical when making key decisions, without blindly following the exact footsteps of others."

Swapnil MISHRA, Class of 2023



Editor: How do you survive in the University of “Stress and Tension” as a student entrepreneur?  

Aditi:  It’s part of the UST culture, it’s so chur. But many of our peers can do many different things at the same time, so it pushes us to reach that level as well. It teaches us that life is not just about academics and that balancing itself is a skill that takes time and a schedule that is practical for you to follow. Since this startup is a passion for us, it’s something we wouldn’t mind spending our free time on. 

Editor: Does the business partnership make you better colleagues or hurt the friendship? 

Team: The former, as we know what makes each person tick, and empathetically cover for each other’s busy times. 

Aditi: We do talk about a lot of things and hangout outside our business. And when we do talk about Planeteers, there is a deeply rooted personal touch as we work together. 

Swapnil: You don’t necessarily have to balance these roles, as being friends first helps you understand and empathize as we work on Planeteers. Sometimes it’s not possible for a completely equal distribution of work, so it’s important to empathize and understand the others’ situations. 

Editor: Other than professors in the entrepreneurship circuit, is there anyone you would like to thank for encouraging you to start the Planeteers?    

Aditi: Right at the beginning, when we just had this idea, a staff member in the Management Department, Mary Ho, highly encouraged me to pursue this idea, and I’m grateful for her encouragement. 

Swapnil: I’ve seen many of my peers and seniors creating their own startups, which helped me see what university life can entail. I went to a workshop hosted by Patrick Tu, who showed us a slide with 2.8 on it and made us guess what that meant. It turned out it was his GPA! Hearing Patrick’s entrepreneurial story in choosing an unconventional route to success, rendering the conventional route irrelevant to himself. This inspired and made me really consider what I wanted out of university life, and to look outside my previous set of options to take risks and create something that has a bigger impact. (Editor’s note: Patrick Tu, BBA alumni; Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 awardee who co-founded Dayta.ai with another alumni Alex Chu)