Iowa State student turns class assignment into crop scouting innovation
By Darrin Cline
Michael Koenig began with just a class project. He never imagined his enrollment in Econ 334, Entrepreneurship in Agriculture, at Iowa State University would be the stepping stone to his future.
Koenig grew up on a farm in southern Iowa and came into the class with a broad knowledge of agriculture. Like many students with an ag background, Koenig had experience working as a young crop scout. However, the memories of the once tedious task became the inspiration for an upcoming class project.
"It was an eight-hour class and they gave you a bunch of books at the end of the day and said 'here you go, you're a crop scouting expert,'" Koenig said about working as a crop scout. "That's probably where the idea came from. I'm not an agronomist by any means and many of the crop scouting interns aren't."
He knew there had to be a simpler way.
Every student in the Econ 334 was required to create a business proposal. Once students formulated their plans and created a loose idea of the business, they were required to give "elevator speeches" to their peers. The class then selected the top 12 business proposals to evolve into fledgling businesses. Koenig's idea was one of the 12 chosen.
The business became known as ScoutPro. While the idea has evolved from the original pitch, it still maintains the central idea of being an advanced and efficient method of crop scouting. Koenig wanted to create an application on smartphones that farmers could take into the field with them and identify pests and weeds.
Farmers and crop scouts would not have to take a paper and clipboard into the field with them; they would not have to lug around a large guide to diseases. ScoutPro would put all of this in the phone app, complete with an inventory of the afflictions that could be affecting the crops.
Throughout the rest of the fall semester in 2010, Koenig and his small team worked to build the business concept; not only would final grades be largely dictated by the project, but it was revealed that sizable scholarships would be given to the members of the top three teams.
This was the spark that further ignited the fire. Each team accelerated their determination and effort, but in the end, ScoutPro was declared as the overall class winner.
Koenig, along with classmates Holden Nyhus and Stuart McCulloh saw real potential in the validity of the product. Kevin Kimle--professor for the Econ 334 class and an entrepreneur in his own right--helped advise the team in their pursuit.
"In January 2011 we kicked off our incubator program and we put a few projects in the programs (at Iowa State), ScoutPro being one of them," Kimle said. "We did some deeper exploration of the technical side and created a business plan."
The next step was the Pappajohn Business Plan competition. The ScoutPro team impressed and came away with the first place award of $5,000.
From there they knew they had something special. ScoutPro began to blossom. They continued to work the programmers and advisors at Iowa State to elevate the app's technical capabilities.
Koenig's original concept included facial expression software that could be adapted to crops and plants, but after researching decided that the technology was not feasible. Instead, they worked with the programmers and ISU plant pathologists to use algorithms and keyed identification software to launch the app.
The major market unveiling came at the 2011 Farm Progress Show. It allowed the ScoutPro team to contact producers and introduce their product. Other farm shows provided marketing outlets, but Koenig has found his biggest success through the close-knit nature of the farming community.
"We learned that the ag business is a very large industry but it's a small world. Obviously it's huge as an industry but you get to talking to people and realize they have a lot in common. For as big as it is, it's like somebody being your neighbor on the farm," Koenig said.
Koenig and his team are always looking for new ways to improve. Currently they have created iPhone apps for corn and soybeans. However, they are close to releasing a wheat crop scout app, as well as researching other crops such as cotton, canola and sunflower. Additionally, they hope to make the app available on other Android platforms.
ScoutPro's versatility goes beyond pests and weeds. According to Koenig, the app can address and identify herbicide damage, disease, natural causes and nutrient deficiencies. Not only can they provide info and pictures, but they recently attained permission to provide chemical application recommendations.
While most of the info has been from Iowa State, it is not a Midwest-only app.
"What we look to do is work with state organizations to create more of an "Iowa version" and then develop more state-specific ones. We want to work with more universities to try and do that. As we continue to grow we will add more information," Koenig said.
Since his graduation, Koenig has worked full time for his business. Founding partners Nyhus and McCulloh are expected to come on board full time after they complete their studies at Iowa State.
The group wants to continue what they started in the classroom and stay on the cutting edge of technology.
"The coolest thing about what we're doing is that we are moving beyond being a one-trick pony. We're moving toward being an agriculture app development company," Koenig said about his former homework project.