Thoughts on startups

July 21, 2014

I talk about startups with Jonathan Lau, co-founder of Switch, who helps make research, admissions, and the switch into a technology career quick and easy. Here’s the repost of that interview.

The Director of Web Services at Apitronics reflects on his entrepreneurial journey into agriculture and offers invaluable startup advice.

18th Jul, 2014

We’ve interviewed both students and founders of immersive programs, and will continue to do so. Today, however, our focus lies in life after school with the debut of our new feature, Ask An Entrepreneur, where we interview technologists willing to take a chance on new ideas. Unfortunately, many of today’s new ideas are unsustainable, fizzling out before they ever take flight. Sustainability — in an ecological, social, as well as economic sense — is a frontier that increasingly demands our attention.

Hao Chen, director of web services at Apitronics, is particularly interested in this particular mission of sustainability: With his company’s open platform, he hopes to capture the world’s environmental data, making it accessible and useful so that we may live in harmony with natural systems. We caught up with Hao to learn about his journey and to hear his advice for future startup leaders.

Hao, tell us how Apitronics came to be.

Wondering where our food comes from, Louis worked on a farm over a summer. One day on the farm, he noticed the temperature in the greenhouse was really hot and wondered why there wasn’t an alert system set up to monitor critical environmental conditions to mitigate risk of crop loss. This led to his investigation of remote monitoring systems for agriculture and eventually building the Apitronics platform to solve problems in agriculture like overheating greenhouses, frost alerts, and irrigation efficiency.

I’m passionate about sustainability, and at the time, was working on sustainability-focused employee engagement software. Increasingly, I was interested in agriculture after learning 70% of global fresh water is used in farming and our food system contributes to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. After connecting to Louis through a mutual friend, I immediately saw the potential for Apitronics to be an innovative leader in a movement to drive global impact through agriculture technology. I call myself a fast follower.

What challenges have you faced with your startup?

Opportunity cost. We only have two people in our startup, so choosing how we spend our time wisely is important. With limited resources, every hour we spend productively (ie. talking to customers, building product) gives us a better chance to learn faster and survive longer to find a repeatable, scalable business model.

How have you tackled these challenges?

Still working on it. We’ve gone down paths that ultimately haven’t been fruitful, but we learn from each experience. By building quicker feedback loops into our process, we create the space and time to reflect on what’s been working well, so we can do more of that, and what hasn’t worked so well, so we can adjust the strategy appropriately. Recently, we’ve been setting holistic goals. Starting with questions like what quality of life we want to have as founders, who are our stakeholders (not just financial), what is our company vision/mission, we identify the outcomes we want to achieve. From there, right now, we’re setting measurable objectives and milestones that we can use to help track our success as well as prioritize day to day tasks. We believe this will help laser focus our limited resources and ultimately lead us to a better outcome.

Knowing what you know now, do you wish you’d done anything differently?

Jumping into an industry we knew very little about has been eye opening. We have lots of work to do to build up our network in the industry and plenty of knowledge/skills to acquire. When speaking to farmers or agronomists, it’s helpful to learn and speak their language. If I knew I’d be going into a new industry beforehand, I would have spent more time preparing myself for it. Immersing yourself in a new environment is always great for learning, though.

What have you got planned for the future?

We want to build tools to empower farmers to provide nutrient-dense food and fiber in a regenerative ecological and financially sustainable way. Today, we’re building hardware to collect environmental data and software to display the data in interesting ways. In the future, we’ll have customers using our platform to help optimize and automate their production operations, manage traceability from seed to fork, and provide real-time “ground truth” verification for environmental projects related to air, water, and soil.

Do you have any lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Pay it forward. Everyone has a virtual bank account. Every time you do something nice for someone, it’s like making a deposit into your account. Start early because you do earn compounding interest over time. When you need to make a withdrawal, you’ll have plenty of karma credit and people willing to help you, which brings us to the next lesson…

Ask. Many times, people are willing to help you, but you need to have an ask. Having an ask ready to go when we’re talking to customers, mentors, or partners have led us to new opportunities and relationships.

People. Relationships matter a lot. Most of the time, a startup fails not because of product failure, but because of people problems. Make sure you’re managing relationships (ie. co-founders, employees, customers, advisors, family) to avoid unexpected surprises.

What motivates you?

There is no planet B (yet), so I believe it is our responsibility and within our intrinsic motivation to care for our beautiful planet, care for the people living on it (past, present, and future), and make sure we have systems in place that are fair and just. Everything we know is changing at an accelerating rate and life as we know it will be very different in a few decades. I want to give my children and humanity as many options as possible to achieve the outcomes we want for the world.

Hao is a technologist and entrepreneur passionate about sustainability. He’s interested in creating the feedback loops and learnings necessary to nourish the world and regenerate our planet. Hao has worn many hats on tech teams of both startups and corporations including Practically Green, Smarterer, SharedSchool, and Dassault Systemes. Hao has been hacking software for over twenty years and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can often find him engaging with the Boston startup ecosystem or just observing nature in his backyard.

Original post from https://www.switchup.org/blog/ask-an-entrepreneur-hao-chen-of-apitronics


Summer Reading List

July 9, 2014

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country

Buy from Amazon

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth

Buy from Amazon

Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing

Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing

Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing

Buy from Amazon

The Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us

The Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us

The Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us

Buy from Amazon


Becoming Butterfly

June 27, 2014

Image

If humans are nature, and nature is life, and life is conducive to life, then climate change isn’t happening to us, it’s happening for us. Just as fever is a response to disease, climate change is feedback to systemic imbalance. Is it possible to have a good Anthropocene? Just as (I would imagine) giving birth sucks, what comes out the other end could be a more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

“How does one become a butterfly? They have to want to learn to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” ― Trina Paulus


Human, technologist or technology?

June 21, 2014
nature_coming

Image credit Ransom & Mitchell – http://ransommitchell.com

Ever since Homo came into being 2.3 million years ago, we have been fascinated by tools. Evolution increased human brain size, and we quickly learned to use fire and complex tools. A subset of technology, agriculture has only been around the last 10,000 years. Based on Taleb’s anti-fragility principle, technology is much more anti-fragile than agriculture, since it has been around for a much longer time. Now, this only applies to human technology vs human agriculture. In nature, other species have been using technology for much longer. Take leafcutter ants, for example, who have been farming fungi in an ant-fungus mutualism, which evolved over 50 million years ago. Now, we could say ants are more anti-fragile than humans.

We could consider things in nature as technology. Could bees be technology? Technology is defined as “the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems.” We use bees in agriculture (the science of farming) to provide honey and pollination as well as beeswax for consumer products. If bees serve a purpose and are a species of nature, would it go too far to say humans might serve a purpose, too? What would that purpose be? What would it mean if instead of being the technologist, we’re the technology?

At some point in time, we decided to enact a story that says, “no, we’re separate from nature. We’re smarter. Humans were evolution’s last stop.” Ever since we were little, this is the myth drilled into us. Newsflash: it isn’t true. Out of the millions of species that live on this planet, does it make sense that one would be an outlier that exists to destroy the others, thus destroying itself? Life is conducive to life. Life is resilient. Resiliency is created thru biodiversity. We are not separate from nature. As hard as we try, we can never run away from our own shadow nor can we physically pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It is because we are nature, and we’re coming back to get ourselves.


The Journey

April 17, 2014

My sustainability journey started by watching Story of Stuff. It helped me ask, “how is stuff made?” Understanding “why is stuff made?” led me to research “what is money?” More educated about money, I looked into our fossil fuel addicted economy. Scared out of my mind after researching peak oil and climate change, I started looking for solutions, yet only found more problems with our industrial food system. Then, I discovered permaculture. One of the principles of permaculture is “the problem is the solution.” Regional foodsheds built on real relationships supplied by regenerative farming is one piece of the puzzle. There are over 40+ regenerative agricultural practices that can build topsoil, sequester carbon, provide nutrient-dense food, reduce fossil fuel reliance, increase biodiversity, increase yields, cleanse water, and many more benefits. Can agriculture be the problem as well as the solution? I think so. To find out, my current journey has led me to the hidden world under out feet, soil. Stay tuned!


Grass is always greener

April 6, 2014

…on the other side. Yet when we get there, often times we realize our perceptions deceive us and it was only a trade off. A dichotomy in our human-ness makes us seek stability and improvement at the same time. We know that staying the course with “business-as-usual” mentality will lead us to unadaptable climate change for us. Social and political unrest over access to resource scarcity will cause violent conflict and mass migration to “greener pastures.” The oceans have absorbed most of the carbon in the air, yet we’ve burdened it to the point of ecosystem collapse through ocean acidification. Where then can we put the carbon? What about in the grass itself? What if it was possible to capture and sequester carbon in the prairie grasses and soil itself, increasing natural capital and relieving socioeconomic pressure? Management-intensive grazing experts says yes. In his TED talk, Allan Savory talks about how Holistic Management can help reverse desertification and global warming. Understanding the relationships in our natural ecosystems, including those between carbon, water, soil, grass, and herbivores, will help us create the abundance and greener world we know is possible.


Joining Apitronics

March 28, 2014

I studied Computer Science in college. My mom always nudged me to study another field, but I never did. At the time, I didn’t understand, thinking CS was both intellectually stimulating and career-marketable. My “aha moment” didn’t happen until arriving at Practically Green. Working at this mission-driven startup, I learned so much about the world we live in, system dynamics, our culture, and most importantly, myself. Technology is great, but it’s our interrelated cosmology, social/economic structures, and resources that reminds me this Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park:

‘..your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’

To this end, I’m excited to announce I’ll be joining early stage startup Apitronics to work on appropriate technology to further our shared mission of improving agricultural systems. Working out of Greentown Labs in Somerville, MA (come visit us), Apitronics builds the internet of things for farming. Here’s our Kickstarter from last year to help describe the platform. If you know of any farmers in the area, please shoot me a note; I’d love to get to know them. Let the marathon begin!

archectiture
Apitronics platform


PDC: Part Deux Recap

March 23, 2014

Just returned home from weekend #2 of a permaculture design course. Very exhausted. Was an intense three days crammed with information.

We touched upon many topics, including water capture/store techniques like keyline design, carbon sequestration initiatives like carbon farming, and financial permaculture. We even held a talent show Sat night. I did a skillshare on a tool for behavior change. Much knowledge learned and connections made this weekend. Hope to apply some of it in support of regenerative agriculture.


Lifetime impact using collaborative consumption

March 14, 2014

Being a digital native, I use a decent amount of collaborative consumption services. I wondered over the span of my life, how many interactions and how much money I would spend on these services. This is what I came up with. My favorite part is the 1,000+ experiences shared with others.

Open Full Infographic


View spreadsheet data


Reading List

March 7, 2014

I love learning about the world through reading. At any given time, I’m reading or listening to many books. Here’s a snapshot of my current reading list. Have you read any of these books? Let’s discuss!


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