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.