AMES — Sometimes a dorm room can double as a corporate board room, if you have people with ideas and perhaps just a bit of support.
That is the case for the partners in ScoutPro, a new company that was born in a classroom at Iowa State University and helped by a new agricultural entrepreneurship initiative on campus.
The idea is simple, yet exciting. The students have developed a software application (or “app” to most of us) that can help farmers and crop scouts in identifying corn and soybean weeds and pests in the field.
Instead of lugging a book or a large binder into a field, the founders of ScoutPro hope farmers will be able to carry an electronic notebook (such as an iPad) or smartphone or laptop to the field and use that device to identify problem weeds and record their location.
“It started out as a concept,” says Michael Koenig, one of the new company’s founders. “We were looking for a better way to do crop scouting.”
But, of course, the idea goes back even further. Start with the three founders.
Michael Koenig, 27, grew up on a farm near Pleasantville and he dreamed of returning to the farm but knew there wasn’t enough income there to support a second family. He married, had two children and spent five years as an electrician. But, eventually he decided he wanted to go to college, so he came to ISU and began studying to be an agriculture teacher.
Then he took a required class in entrepreneurship being taught by Kevin Kimle. That economics 334 course included a project where students formed teams and produced feasibility studies on business ideas.
“The three of us all had different ideas,” explains Stuart McCulloh, another partner in the business. “Michael’s idea sounded like the best one to us.”
So, McCulloh, Koenig and Holden Nyhus joined forces and worked on their idea in class. Their instructor, who also heads the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI) gave them advice and encouragement. They started out looking at using photo-recognition technology with the idea farmers could use smartphones to take a picture of a weed or pest, then use the app to identify it.
They eventually concluded the technology wasn’t quite in place for that approach, but existing technology would still allow farmers or crop scouts to do a better, faster and easier job of identifying and mapping pest problems.
The three met in living rooms and dorm rooms, discussing classwork and business plans, envisioning how their product would look and work. They eventually brought in two partners. Dan Noe became their graphic designer and Sudheer Kumar Pamuru became the programmer.
The original three founders had farm backgrounds and on-the-ground experience; the newer partners provided needed technical expertise. AgEI provided advice and introduced them to other groups and organizations which could help. The Iowa Soybean Association was supportive and the group’s success in the Pappajohn New Venture Business Competition also helped.
“It really started to move from ‘We could use the money for tuition’ to ‘This could really
work,’ ” Nyhus says.
That transformation is exciting to more than just these three students, says Stacey Noe, program coordinator at AgEI.
“One of our goals is to expose students to entrepreneurs,” she says.
“We want them to get outside the classroom. One thing we’ve learned over the years is that we’ve always done a great job of providing technical training. Graduates have the science and technical knowledge. Now, we’re trying to build on that with a business background.”
That sometimes may lead to students starting a business.
The young founders of ScoutPro are rolling out their product and, if it is successful, they promise more ag apps in the future. Their first product works best on a tablet, but it can be used on a smartphone. More information: www.scoutpro.org.