Startup for Soil Health
The road to entrepreneurship requires creativity, motivation and a great network of supporters. Josh Jeske, with his innovative outlook on agriculture and enthusiasm for soil health, is working to corner the market in all of those areas.
Jeske managed his own swine facility for Iowa Select Farms near his hometown of Eldora, Iowa, since he was 16. The senior in agricultural and life sciences education chose to focus his education on agricultural communications because of the versatility of course offerings.
“It lets me take a broad array of classes from soil conservation and land use to statistics,” says Jeske.
Following high school Jeske studied at Ellsworth Community College, where he joined the Professional Agricultural Student Organization (PAS). In 2019, a last-minute adjustment to the club’s PAS competition team gave him an opportunity to participate in the sales competition and planted the seed for a potential career path. He pulled an all-nighter to prep and it paid off. He won the state competition and placed in the national PAS competition.
THE IOWA STATE ADVENTURE BEGINS
Shortly after arriving on campus in 2019, he received an email about the ISU Innovation Prize, an incentive-based competition co-hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI) and the Iowa State Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.
Fresh off of his win at the PAS competition, Jeske responded to the event with the goal of learning more about sales. The educational programming offered during the competition helped him think about how he’d solve common problems in an uncommon way.
“I remember hitting an area of densely compacted soil with my dad’s plow and thought, ‘what would it be like if we could measure that force, and use it to determine the ideal tillage depth, or pass over areas that don’t need tillage,’” Jeske says.
The concept for his business, Precision Tillage, was born.
Jeske’s idea gained wings, and he won the AgTech focus area of the competition. He was paired with other participants and mentors — a “dream team,” of entrepreneurial minded marketers, technology specialists and business people, to help guide and shape his plan.
Precision Tillage, it was determined, would be a hardware and software combination that allowed the farmer to put a sensor on tillage equipment and “see,” in real-time, what area of a field needed minimal tillage or no-till. The goal of the product is to maintain profitability and protect the soil.
Kevin Kimle, associate teaching professor in the Department of Economics and director of AgEI, was a judge during the competition and now serves as a mentor for Jeske. In the spring of 2019, Jeske took Kimle’s Economics in Agriculture course (Econ 334), a class that offers students an opportunity to develop a comprehensive feasibility study for a new business.
“Kimle’s class was a game-changer,” says Jeske, “I just fell in love with it. It forced you to make things real in how you viewed your business. By the end of the semester I had a business plan and marketing materials.”
Kimle and other mentors helped connect Jeske with student-entrepreneurs, like Vikrant Sant, a student in economics and mathematics and Dillon Jensen, a student in computer science, who helped develop the technology behind Precision Tillage.
“Josh’s off-the-charts aspiration to be an entrepreneur were apparent from the first moment I met him. That enthusiasm is contagious to others, as he’s been terrific engaging with other students who aspire to be entrepreneurial and innovative,” says Kimle.
Kimle encouraged Jeske to apply to CyStarters, an 11-week summer accelerator program that provides financial support to students and recent graduates to focus on their business. Jeske’s application was accepted, and he began the program in the summer of 2020.
A COVID SETBACK
Shortly after the start of CyStarters, Jeske contracted COVID-19, and hit a major road-block in his journey with Precision Tillage.
“I had just started working with my intern and was looking forward to digging into my business. All of that came to a halt for about a month while I was sick and needed to quarantine. It was during a key time in the program.” says Jeske.
Following his illness, Jeske was able to continue with CyStarters, meeting with industry mentors and fellow cohort members virtually.
“In a normal face-to-face environment, you can really dig in, but no one wants to hang on a Zoom meeting and brainstorm for hours. We had to be much more efficient in our use of time,” he says.
Jeske continues to work on his prototype for Precision Tillage. Through this process, Jeske has learned a few major lessons:
- Economy for the business and the consumer is key. Originally Jeske wanted to use ground penetrating radar to measure soil density, a technology that was expensive and required significant amount of training.
- Collaboration helps efficiency and problem-solving. Jeske was able to work with mentors and fellow student-entrepreneurs to help determine how to measure soil density in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
- Mentorship is important. Jeske can name a number of industry leaders, Iowa State faculty and staff and students who helped guide and shape his entrepreneurship journey. His goal is to continue to foster those relationships.
“I really want to help make agriculture sustainable and focus on the next generation. I’m going to inherit a farm one day — I want it to be profitable and sustainable and I want to use new technologies to make that happen. My goal for the future is to continue this mindset of entrepreneurship and grow this network of people I’ve met during my time at Iowa State,” says Jeske.
HOW IT WORKS:
- Precision Tillage hardware (sensors) measure the expansion and contraction of resistance springs on tillage equipment.
- Software automatically uploads data into the cloud and logs it into a database.
- Farmers use an on-phone app to access the data and view soil density in real-time so they can make tillage decisions based on results.