The insight we gained from conducting 130 interviews in the agriculture ecosystem for the National NSF I-corps team program and the NSF Beat-the-Odds boot camp was priceless. We learned about our customers’ needs and were able to develop a strategy to focus our product development efforts on specific customers, market segments, and pests. We learned how to address the farmer’s needs, and identify key partners, resources, and more. Despite our 130 interviews, only 55 of them were growers. That is because August and September are the peak harvest time. The farmers were not available to take our calls because they were out in the fields. We wanted to continue our customer discovery and interview more farmers when they were less busy. Luckily, we had the opportunity to sponsor a class project at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) Master of Business and Science (MBS) program in Fall 2020. …

Nothing clarifies your value proposition like one hundred customer interviews.

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To our surprise, neither conventional nor organic growers of specialty and row crops were satisfied with the current pest management tools. Regardless of their pest control practices, conventional, organic, or integrated pest management (IPM), growers are looking for new solutions to persistent pest problems. Even though our beachhead market is organic specialty crop growers, we noticed early on that many conventional growers also had organic farms and utilized IPM, which integrates biologicals. Therefore, we included all of the specialty crop growers, regardless of their pest control practices.

Pesticide resistance can be a big problem. One example in turfgrass is the annual bluegrass weevil. There are a plethora of insecticides available to control them. Then one day, they developed resistance, rendering the insecticides obsolete. In another case, one greenhouse grower told us that he used to have a spray program to control spider mites until one day it stopped working. The more he sprayed, the more the spider mites’ population grew. Now he uses IPM and avoids synthetic pesticides that kill the biologicals or beneficials. This grower was not the only one concerned about the compatibility of the pest control solutions with IPM. One citrus grower told us that the products controlling citrus thrips is old, and they see resistance emerging. They choose not to use pyrethroids, which are synthetic insecticides because they kill beneficial insects and cause flareups of mites and other insects. The problems do not end there. Some pesticides kill one pest but promote the fertility of another. Some synthetic pesticides are so hard to use or so heavily regulated that the distributors do not carry them. Or they have to get permits, which takes time and money. One orchard grower had to wait one season to apply Telone, a soil fumigant, due to regulations. …

Uncovering surprising new insights during customer discovery

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The Beat-The-Odd-Boot Camp was part of our National Science Foundation (NSF) Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant with a focus on entrepreneurial training. Our first job in the Boot Camp was customer discovery for the innovation that we are commercializing. To do this, we needed to “get out of the building” and conduct in-person interviews with at least 30 potential customers, something that is pretty hard to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we conducted video interviews. In 2017 and 2018, we undertook a broad customer discovery (a total of 50 interviews) with deep dives in 3 segments; greenhouse growers, stone fruit growers, and nut growers. When we started the Boot Camp in May 2020, we thought we already knew our customers, and we were not sure what we could learn. …

The hardest thing I have to do is to describe my role as Pheronym’s COO, which is crucial to our product development.

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Karl Cameron Schiller, COO of Pheronym

What does a startup COO do? If you search Google for a COO’s role and job description, it says the COO is the second in command and runs the operations. Even though this is a very clear role for big companies, it is not so clear in a startup. Also, the COO role is different for every startup. For example, digital health tech or digital agriculture startups’ needs are very different from pharmaceutical or agriculture biotechnology startups. Furthermore, the description of this role changes depending on the skill sets of the startup’s CEO because the CEO and COO skills complement each other. It is even more difficult for me to explain because what I do constantly changes with the company’s ever-changing needs. It is like caring for a child; one minute it is a baby, next thing you know it starts crawling, then it’s a toddler. Every phase of development requires different skills. Since Dr. …

Karl Cameron Schiller

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