UIUC Startup Story: Amber Agriculture
Every January, over 150,000 exhibitors, media outlets, and industry professionals flock to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest consumer electronics and technology tradeshow. CES 2017 was no exception; nearly 4,000 companies from across the globe were represented on the exhibition floor, each one showcasing their cutting edge technology innovations bent on “disrupting the space”—whichever it might be. With such an overwhelming number of exhibits, it would seem virtually impossible for any company—let alone a fledgling startup—to stand out. But for UIUC-grown Amber Agriculture, which Engadget named the Top Startup at CES 2017, this is just the latest in a long list of successes that have characterized the company’s past year.
Since late 2015, Amber Ag has been hard at work developing a small sensor that, when put inside a grain silo, helps farmers monitor the quality of their stored grain. Every year, farmers lose significant quantities of grain to moisture loss as a result of suboptimal storage conditions. While everyone from tiny, single-founder startups to corporate giants like Google and Amazon are harnessing the Internet of things to build smarter homes, Amber is one of the few companies actively engaged in, as Engadget notes, “trying to help build the smart farm.”
But Amber’s tech wasn’t initially focused on agriculture. Joey Varikooty and Lucas Frye met in September of 2015 at 54.io, a three-day event organized annually by Founders, a UIUC student organization that supports student entrepreneurship. Over the course of 54 hours, interdisciplinary groups of students attempt to launch a successful startup. At that time, Joey lived in “a really old apartment complex that had really, really terrible dryers.” So he and two of his friends in the College of Engineering envisioned creating a small wireless sensor that could be thrown in with a load of laundry to tell the user when their clothes were actually dry. Lucas, a first-year student in the MBA program and recent graduate from the College of ACES, had grown up on a farm and immediately saw the potential agriculture application.
The connection surprised them both. “I came there just wanting to build something cool over the weekend,” Joey said of the Friday through Sunday event. Lucas, meanwhile, had only stopped by on Friday to hear the opening pitches: “I was actually hoping not to find a good reason to spend my entire weekend at a hackathon,” he recalled with a laugh. But Lucas stuck around after hearing Joey and his friends pitch their idea: “The clothes dryer application was interesting, and I was thinking ‘What’s the biggest dryer in the world?’ And that’s these grain bins. Essentially, they’re just big grain dryers.” Over the course of the next 54 hours, Amber Agriculture was born.
Early Success and iVenture
Having participated in 54.io, the Amber team was qualified to enroll in Founder’s Startup Bootcamp, which helped prepare the 5-person team for the Cozad New Venture Competition, UIUC’s campus-wide business plan competition. “We really just kept hanging around the entrepreneurship stuff,” Lucas said. “We had Cozad in the back of our mind, that we’d work toward that.”
They enrolled in Cozad in the spring of 2016, and over the three-month competition, they created together a “works like/looks like” prototype, sought out stakeholder perspectives by visiting a grain elevator and one of the local bin building companies, and spoke with some of the “farm folk” on campus.
Despite all their hard work prototyping, doing customer discovery, and conducting market research for Cozad, Lucas admits, “We had a surprising outcome there.” The team won the main Cozad prize, the IllinoisVENTURES prize, and a Dow Ag Startup Prize. Not only did this victory provide the team with much-needed validation for their idea, but it was also a valuable networking opportunity. Here, they first met Adam Evans, CTO and co-founder of RelateIQ, and Marcin Kleczynski, CEO of Malwarebytes. In the year since Cozad, these relationships have proved invaluable to Amber’s development.
After their enormous success at Cozad, the team was accepted to the iVenture Accelerator for summer 2016, . The Cozad prize money and the additional funding, space, and networks they received through iVenture enabled a more dedicated commitment to the company. “Following Cozad and receiving the invitation to the iVenture Accelerator, we really made the decision to step away from our summer internships and focus on Amber Ag full time,” Lucas explained.
In addition to funding, iVenture provided the team with the space, accountability, and networking opportunities they needed to thrive. “It’s easy to underestimate the value of just having a space on campus…some place to check into every day where there are other people operating in a similar fashion to you,” Lucas explained. It’s not surprising that, of the 12 ventures in iVenture that summer, Amber moved into their office space first, and the fastest. iVenture Lead Coordinator, Ryan Singh, said that the Amber team really made the most of their space, utilizing it for hardware and software development. “They brought in a barrel of corn to use for their demo,” Ryan recalled. “It was a fun reminder to everyone that there was indeed an ag tech team in the midst of our other ventures working on medical devices, software, nonprofits, and more.”
The colocation of teams was another feature of the accelerator model that the pair reflected on fondly. “Putting startups with other startups, they begin to support each other. It gives you that motivation to keep working hard,” Joey said of his time in iVenture. Finding the support of like-minded people and building a network was crucial for the young company. Through iVenture, Amber continued to build a relationship with Adam Evans, a UIUC alumnus (Finance ’04) and experienced entrepreneur who sold RelateIQ to Salesforce for $390 million. Adam continues to advise the team, connect them to his network, and offer his support as a successful alumnus founder.
Concurrently with iVenture, Amber participated in the Ag-Corps program, an agriculture-specific iteration of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) I-Corps™ program run through UIUC’s Technology Entrepreneur Center, EnterpriseWorks, and Research Park. The Ag-Corps curriculum leads companies through the customer discovery process, which for Amber meant talking to 50 stakeholders in the agriculture space, making site visits, and engaging with numerous ag tech innovations coming out of academic institutions across the Midwest. Lucas felt the experience enhanced the sense of community the team already discovered through iVenture. “It was kind of a Midwest ag tech ecosystem,” he observed.
While Ag-Corps and iVenture had increased Amber’s confidence in their product and market, the summer also brought the company’s first significant challenge. With five co-founders, there were bound to be conflicts. Once the team began working together full-time, however, they struggled to align their long-term visions for the company. “That was probably the most difficult moment, figuring out how to move forward in a respectable fashion,” Lucas reflected. After a challenging period, the group decided to part ways. The original team of five had become two; Lucas and Joey remained to continue the business.
Not the type to be discouraged, the pair set their sights on the next opportunity. On the advice of the founders of Sprite Robotics, another UIUC-based startup that Amber had met during Cozad, Lucas and Joey applied to Hax, an accelerator program for hardware startups. Being admitted to Hax required a major move; they spent almost four months living in Shenzhen, China, in the fall of 2016. Hax gave them a chance to immerse themselves in their company and the development of their sensor. As the largest electronics market in the world, there are significant benefits to working in Shenzhen. “It allows you to do any sort of prototyping or small scale manufacturing, like 10x cheaper and 10x faster,” Joey explained of the experience.
Halfway through their time at Hax, the cohort presented their pitches in front of a group of approximately 40 Harvard Business School alumni. Not only did the judges choose Amber as the winners, but the HBS Hong Kong Alumni Association invited them to pitch in front of 400 alumni at their annual Investment Summit in January 2017.
The Hax environment really allowed the pair to focus taking the sensor from mockup to prototype. “When we would share with others that we were going to China, most believed it was for manufacturing conversations and beginning a premature, arguably risky, co-development relationship. This was not the case at all,” Lucas explained. “Our primary objective was to prototype as quickly as possible, and leverage the expertise and access that comes from working in the hardware capital of the world.” Hax provided Amber with pivotal engineering and design assistance, and, being located in the heart of Shenzhen, they were able to quickly buy any electronic component within a couple of hours. This support and unrestrained access to parts allowed them to significantly decrease the size of their sensor, moving from a larger probe concept to a tiny pellet concept. It was this finger-sized sensor that, only a few months later, turned so many heads at CES 2017.
Right now, Joey and Lucas are residing in San Francisco, where they are part of Alchemist. The competitive six-month accelerator program takes only 17 teams at a time, and specializes in developing businesses who market their products to other businesses. As with Hax, Amber learned about Alchemist through a UIUC contact. “One of the faculty mentors of Alchemist is a two-time U of I alum, was on the Oracle exec team, and now teaches at Stanford,” Lucas explained.
With so many successes under their belts, one might think that the co-founders would settle into the comfortable existence afforded by mild weather and financial stability. But complacency has never been Amber Ag’s style. Joey recently returned to Shenzhen for a month to continue developing the sensor. Lucas, meanwhile, tries to return to Champaign-Urbana at least once a month to maintain the strong network of contacts, stakeholders, and mentors that he and Joey developed as students and early-stage entrepreneurs.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
While some may describe Amber Ag’s numerous successes as “lucky,” it really comes down to Lucas and Joey’s relentless perseverance and drive. When others might sit on their laurels after a major achievement, the Amber team keeps moving forward. When faced with challenges and disappointment, they stay focused on the future of the company. This commitment to just doing the work is particularly evident in their advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs. “You just have to have the mantra that you should have started yesterday,” Lucas said. “You’re only going to get busier. As you move forward with your career, you’re going to have more excuses. There’s never ever going to be time, so you just have to create the time and just start as soon as possible if there’s any inkling of doing entrepreneurship or some sort of small business. You should start yesterday.”
Joey, speaking directly to engineers, explained that, for him, the key to success was just getting involved and being open to opportunity. “I think you should be spending most of your time doing cool projects. Stuff you really enjoy. Getting hands-on experience, even if it’s just small weekend things. Just keep on doing projects because that really gives you the confidence for the long haul, to build cooler and cooler things, and someday, that opportunity might find you.” “You have to mix more often,” Lucas echoed. “You have to get engineers in a room with people with backgrounds in agriculture, with business students, with design students. You never know, you just have to keep showing up and something interesting might happen.”
Amber returns from San Francisco in June. The rest of 2017 will be focused on leveraging their customer discovery and stakeholder networking efforts to get their sensors into grain bins. “Our short-term focus is just to be all set for field trials this fall when farmers store grain. Long-term, [we’re going to] build out the post-harvest software platform,” Lucas explained. “Regardless of which route we go long-term, it’s still is about getting sensors into bins. We’ll always be under that ethos of protecting the world’s food supply and putting profits back in farmers’ pockets. We’re always building out to help farmers and we’ll always be on their side.”
While Amber still has a long way to go to achieve their lofty goals of protecting farmers and the food supply on a global scale, what’s truly amazing is how much change a year has brought. It was just over a year ago that Amber Ag was only one of 130 Cozad hopefuls, eagerly vying for a limited number of spots in the successive rounds of the competition. Today, they’ve spent the majority of the past year living either on the other side of the country or on the opposite side of the world validating their idea, honing their product design, and developing a strong network of stakeholders who share their vision of creating better, smarter solutions for the world’s farmers. Their successes within the UIUC campus ecosystem cannot be underestimated. Joey remarked, “These small validation points are really what pushes you along initially when you’re shooting in the dark.” Joey and Lucas obviously understand the importance of the alumni mentors who have taken the time to help them succeed. It’s probably why they’re looking to UIUC themselves for skilled engineers to join their team. If Amber’s second year is even half as successful as their first, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. It’s like Lucas said: “If you show up, something interesting might happen.”