BCIC-New Ventures Competition 2014 finalist takes its Crop Sense system to new levels with the help of BCIC and its Tech Co-Op Grants Program
Building a business plan, networking and raising the money to offer competitive salaries are just some of the challenges Saber Miresmailli has met since founding his North Vancouver-based startup, Ecoation Innovative Solutions. But support from the BC Innovation Council—a Crown agency dedicated to growing B.C.’s economy through technology—has helped him clear those hurdles, and build a business that is poised to change the world.
Since 2010, Ecoation has been working to revolutionize agriculture by eliminating the need for pesticides. Its product, Crop Sense, is a wireless monitoring system that uses a robot to scan plants, and an app that alerts growers to real time changes in their condition. The information allows farmers to chart growth and tend to problems in individual plants before entire crops are threatened. But after five years developing the technology for growing plants, Miresmailli knew success hinged on growing his team.
“At the stage that we’re at, the majority of the development that we do depends on the type of people and the kind of team that we put together,” he says, noting for startups, that can be a challenge. “With limited resources and tons of options for very bright and intelligent talent, you have to be competitive.”
After placing in the top 10 in the BCIC-New Ventures Competition in 2014 and participating in the Venture Acceleration Program through BCIC partners Wavefront and Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, Miresmailli knew where to turn for support. Grants from BCIC topped up the salaries for three students who joined Ecoation’s team in 2015—one of whom made a game-changing discovery.
Through BCIC’s Tech Co-Op Grants Program that provides small tech firms with up to $2,700 to pay a co-op student's salary, Miresmailli hired UBC student Bryana Ginther in August. Tasked with maintaining a demonstration garden—a collection of tomato plants at UBC—Ginther, an environmental science student, identified a design flaw in the Crop Sense system. Originally, the app portion of the system required two hands to operate, but Ginther pointed out that farmers couldn’t use it when tending to their crops. “It didn’t ever occur to us that farmers have their hands full,” says Miresmailli, noting a simple detail like that would have rendered it unusable to his target market. “This particular app is very important, because this is something that’s supposed to be used by farmers.”
After Ginther’s revelation, Miresmailli invited her to meet with Ecoation’s computer engineers and together they designed a new app that could be operated using only one thumb. Miresmailli calls the results “magic.” “Some really cool stuff happened right before my eyes.”
Having the ability to hire students and access young minds and fresh eyes is crucial to the success of startups, Miresmailli says, noting he chose to base Ecoation in B.C. in order to access the wealth of talent here. He believes that having the resources to hire the right people with the right ideas at the right time has given Ecoation a competitive edge. “The impacts are huge because it allows us to hire now and basically make sure we are successful,” he says.