Innovating their Way to the Top with Tech
In 2015, the American Farm Bureau (AFB) held its first Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge—a shark-tank style, national competition where food and agriculture entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of experts for the chance to win up to $30,000. Iowa State alumni and former students of Iowa State’s Agriculture Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI) took first place in 2015 and again in 2016. AgEI empowers students to start their own businesses through courses and entrepreneurial experiences.
Both AFB winners began developing their technology ideas during the Entrepreneurship in Agriculture class, and further developed the technologies with support from the AgEI program and other programs and expertise at Iowa State.
“The idea of measuring grain in real time first came to me when I was in high school and working the grain trucks on our family farm. I didn’t have a lot of experience loading trucks and I was afraid I would overload it and we’d get a DOT (Department of Transportation) fine, or I’d underload it and feel like I didn’t maximize the truck. I thought there should be a way to measure the grain coming out of the bin and into the truck versus needing a full truck scale, which our farm didn’t have,” says Ryan Augustine (‘12 agricultural studies), founder of AccuGrain and the 2016 AFB challenge winner.
That idea came back to him in an AgEI class when asked to develop a business concept and business plan. A class assignment was to look at university technologies available for licensing. He found Iowa State physicist and adjunct associate professor Joseph Gray (retired) and a Ph.D. student, Feyzi Inanc, had patented position-sensitive x-ray technology. Augustine contacted Gray and a collaboration grew that still exists today. Between Augustine’s business acumen and farming experience and Gray’s technology, AccuGrain was launched. The technology uses a position-sensitive x-ray to measure flowing grain.
Kevin Kimle, AgEI director and Rastetter Endowed Chair in Agricultural Entrepreneurship, describes Augustine as “an exceptionally gifted entrepreneur with utter persistence and a hard worker.”
“Entrepreneurs don’t have to be the technology experts; they just have to be able to work effectively with a scientist to take new technology out into the world,” says Kimle.
“In the technology transfer world, you have to have someone like Ryan who is going to take it out of the university or research environment and move it into a commercial environment,” says Gray.
Michael Koenig (’12 agricultural education) and Stuart McCulloh (’13 agri- cultural education) won the 2015 AFB Challenge for their business, ScoutPro, which provides mobile apps to facilitate the process of crop scouting. Crop scouting involves walking fields to assess and record crop conditions such as insect infestations, weeds and disease.
During an AgEI class, Koenig and McCulloh, and a third partner, Holden Nyhus (’13 agricultural education), teamed-up to develop their business concepts. They had been crop-scouting interns and were required to carry a lot
of resources into the field, including three Iowa State extension pocket guides to identify pests, weeds and diseases.
“We wanted to create something that allowed you to get through the field quickly and was less cumbersome,” says Koenig.
They came up with the idea of an app for a mobile device that could use information from university extension crop guides for pest identification; use GPS on the device to draw maps and clearly identify the location of pests within a field; and link all of that information to build reports to assess the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures.
They formed a partnership with Iowa State Extension and Outreach working with Daren Mueller, assistant professor of plant pathology and micro- biology and coauthor of Iowa State’s corn and soybean scouting guides. The AgEI’s Student Business Incubator program helped them develop business concepts and move towards launch. The program helped them meet and work with fellow Iowa Staters Sudheer Pamuru, an app developer, and Dan Noe, a graphic designer.
“Taking the AgEI class in our sophomore year allowed us to utilize the resources of the AgEI program, to develop the concept throughout our time at Iowa State,” says McCulloh.
“The AgEI program and staff were key in driving us, especially early on,” says Koenig. “We’ve gone from technically being interns for our own company to hiring interns out of the AgEI program to help grow our company through the skill sets they’re learning.”