By Casey Verderosa
Beekeepers lose about $80 million per year due to the death of their colonies. Annual losses regularly exceed 30% of managed colonies nationwide and even the most knowledgeable beekeepers struggle to keep their colonies healthy. Cornell PhD students Nathan Oakes and Hailey Scofield thought their Combplex technology to remotely monitor bee colony health would be a huge problem solver for beekeepers. But after talking to more than 100 beekeepers through the NSF I-Corps Teams program, they realized no one really wanted their solution. There was a much bigger problem keeping the beekeepers awake at night, and to address it, they needed to completely shift their business plan and market.
What was the original idea for your company, Combplex?
Oakes: The original idea was to remotely monitor bees to measure hive conditions like temperature, humidity, and pressure inside the colonies. Some fluctuations are informative of things going on inside, such as whether the colony is queenless, the queen is not laying any brood, or whether diseases are present.
How did I-Corps help you to pivot to a new business idea in the beekeeping industry?
Oakes: I-Corps was instrumental. When we started our customer discovery process we were convinced our idea was already good and we expected to validate it. I talked to beekeepers all across the US and it became clear that remote monitoring wasn’t top-of-mind for commercial migratory beekeepers. Their number one problem, which contributes to an estimated 50-80 percent of annual US honey bee losses, was varroa mites.
Scofield: Evaluating what we’d learned from speaking to so many beekeepers, we quickly modified our tech to address the mites. With this pivot, our potential market ballooned from US commercial beekeepers to literally every beekeeper in the world outside of Australia.
How does the new product address varroa mite infestations?
Scofield: We have built a bee frame outfitted with equipment that detects whether a bee has a mite and kills the mite while leaving the bee unharmed. We were able to develop our invention, with help from other researchers, through our deep understanding of anatomical and behavioral differences between honeybees and varroa mites.
What were some of your most valuable I-Corps moments?
Oakes: Being able to meet the biggest beekeeping families in the world (one has over 50,000 colonies) really changed my perspective on everything. For one interview I drove to South Dakota and agreed to help work five of the owner’s beekeeping yards for a full day in exchange for a conversation with the owners. That sweat equity was really valuable and I got to see how they thought about beekeeping. I-Corps emphasizes face-to-face interviews and it’s hard to appreciate why that is until you do it. It’s not something you can really get from a 15-minute phone call.
Scofield: We kept looking for beekeepers to express a need for our remote monitoring product and thinking maybe the next one would validate our idea. Smaller beekeepers kept talking instead about varroa mites and we strategized so much to get them not to talk about that problem. We were thinking the bigger the player, the bigger the problems, the bigger the validation. It wasn’t until we spoke with the head of the largest beekeeping family in the country, who also emphasized varroa mites, that we realized we had to change what we were doing. Nate realized that beekeepers had been telling us what the “hair-on-fire” problem was throughout the whole process and we learned that each individual customer is worth just as much as the next – not only the big ones.
Oakes: It was a bit of a white whale. That’s the moment you should be looking for because at that moment it was impossible to ignore the fact that our original business idea wasn’t going to work.
What advice would you give to someone who is about to start the I-Corps experience?
Oakes: My best advice is to fully immerse yourself in the experience and give yourself time to really incorporate the feedback the interviews are giving you, especially feedback telling you maybe your first idea isn’t great. Nobody likes hearing that. I was driving for so long and all I could think about was all that transpired at all those interviews and what I was going to tell Hailey and our mentors. You really have to struggle with that stuff and let yourself think through it.
Scofield: You have to admit that even though you’re a researcher, and might be an expert in something, you don’t actually know what the customer is experiencing. Even though it might seem as though there’s pretty good communication between industry leaders and researchers, we were shocked over and over again to see how industry leaders were not used to academics being honestly interested in their ideas or how they did their work. Stay open, be humble about what you know, and always be curious.
In addition to I-Corps, Combplex participated in the Hardware Accelerator at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and the eLab student startup program. Combplex was named Cornell’s Student Business of the Year, won first place in the Cornell Summit Pitch Competition, and second place in the Cornell Venture Challenge, a competition run by Big Red Venture Fund to support and showcase high-potential startups. Currently, Combplex is part of the first cohort of TechStars Launchpad, a global accelerator for student businesses powered by Blackstone.