“It builds a lot of character,” said Michael Santiago reminiscing about his time in the NSF I-Corps Teams program doing over 100 customer discovery interviews for FloraPulse, an Agtech company that makes sensors to measure water potential in plants.
Santiago, a mechanical engineer, founded his company in 2016 based on his PhD ’16 research at Cornell University and his experience in Cornell’s eLab program for new entrepreneurs. He participated in I-Corps during the company’s first year and spent a month and a half on the road in California, interviewing dozens of wine and almond growers.
“I found myself more than once sitting in my hotel room in the morning with a list of numbers to cold call,” he said. “I’d never done anything like that before.”
I-Corps challenges tech-innovators like Santiago to “get out of the lab” and immerse themselves in over 100 direct conversations with potential users of their products. Armed with $50,000 in funding for their travels, and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs, they hit the road to find out what problems customers actually have, and to determine if their technology solves those problems. Invariably, participants uncover new angles or new markets for their technology through these conversations and, as a result, shift or evolve their business plans.
Though it was arduous at times, Santiago noted that his interview tour was a critical step for his company: “For us, I-Corps was key because as a scientist you often don’t really know what the market is or what the customers want. You don’t even realize that you don’t know that.”
This knowledge of the customer was crucial for FloraPulse in finding their place within a complex and nuanced agricultural market. FloraPulse provides farmers with the technology to measure the water levels of plants in real time. Once installed, its patented sensors can help prevent over or under-watering, allowing for a more efficient use of resources. Obstacles related to the installation and maintenance of such a product came to Santiago’s attention over the course of his I-Corps journey.
During his visit to California, Santiago saw the difficulty of transporting the sensors to farms that are, by design, far away from each other. He also noted the environmental challenges that can arise to make his work more difficult. All of this valuable knowledge helped him to hone his business plan.
“I-Corps trains you to ask the right questions,” said Santiago.
Those good questions would yield new insights, like Santiago’s realization about the importance of an intuitive and attractive user interface. In his conversations with growers, he got a sense for his competition and the factors customers consider when they choose tech products to use at their vineyards or orchards.
Currently, FloraPulse is using its refined business plan to further develop the company. Santiago and his team have moved to California, conducted field tests with local farmers, and raised money to launch their product in the near future. As the company’s growth continues, its leaders are adamant that talking to customers should remain a top priority.
The Upstate New York I-Corps Node, a partnership between Cornell University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester offers I-Corps Short Courses at universities around the region to help researchers gain entrepreneuship skills and prepare for participation in the national Teams program. The Node also helps connect companies and researchers to SBIR seed funding and a host of other resources.