A startup with uncommon sense

The story of OPX and BlakBear, a sensing tech startup that knows the importance of brand.

“The 10-year vision is to completely optimise food production and consumption. That means measuring, understanding and refining the whole food cycle — and then having it refine itself.”

So says Max Grell, founder of BlakBear.

It’s no small challenge.

But then the most important ones rarely are.

Combining chemistry, electronics and machine learning, BlakBear create portable sensors for measuring air and soil quality.

They first caught the eye of OPX Creative Director David Bennett at the 2017 Venture Catalyst Challenge. Impressed by their pitch, introductions were made, and our partnership began.

Fresh from their victory at the Vodafone Techstarter Awards, we headed back to BlakBear’s lab to discuss their journey so far — and the importance of brand to startups.

Max Grell, Founder of BlakBear

When did the startup start then?

We were founded in the bioengineering department of Imperial College, where I did my PhD. My partners and I were driven by applying physical science and well-developed tech like phones and cloud processing to the big issues facing our planet.

How has your offer evolved?

To begin with, we were focused on air pollution — measuring nitrogen dioxide levels with sensors you attach to your phone. The sensors use the same tech as contactless debit cards to send the data back to you.

Now we’re taking this to the agriculture sector, helping farmers and growers measure soil quality with the tap of a button. This data lets them know exactly how much to feed their crops to increase yield and reduce run-off.

You began life as OpenSense didn’t you?

That’s right. We started applying for grants and needed a name. I sat down to think of one and ‘Open’ and ‘Sense’ were the words that came to mind. To be honest, it sounded exactly like what it was: a scientist trying to come up with a brand name. At least it was honest.

Were there any mixed feelings when OPX suggested a name change?

Of all the guys, I was the most attached to OpenSense. You know how it is. You always love the taste of your own food.

And now?

Now I love it. I just think having a company called BlakBear is cool. I like the fact it’s based on something real too. Sometimes I get people coming up to me saying, “I love the product — but why are you named after an animal?” That’s where the one-liner comes in. I’ve even started ending my presentations with it…

“The only chemical sensor we use every day is our nose. And the animal with the world’s best nose is…”

That always gets a laugh.

As a startup, how was it working with a branding studio?

I’d done that thing before where you pay a fiver and get a logo. I’d also put marketing jobs online and let people bid for them. But this was on a completely different level.

It’s a real process. OPX got to know our business: our reason for being, what drives us, what we stand for. This means that everything is built on something real — which gives you more faith in what you’re pitching and presenting.

How has the BlakBear brand helped your business?

I think it’s a big reason why, after events, the first line of emails is often, “great pitch”. It gives us a coherent message, it’s memorable and it rolls off the tongue. This helps us stay top of mind with the startup incubators and accelerators we work with.

Can a sharp brand help startups attract investment?

Investors and VCs are all trying to turn over the rock to see if there’s any gold underneath. So, in many ways, it’s OK to be branded as something weird or boring, because that’s not what they’re looking for. To be honest, it might even help you. Some VCs, rightly or wrongly, love the idea of discovery — this idea they’ve seen something in you others haven’t. That said, they could just think, ‘these guys don’t know what they’re doing. They’ll never sell anything’.

I think your brand is more important when it comes to potential clients or partners. On an unconscious level, it definitely has an impact. While you live and die by your tech, a strong brand changes the way people perceive and talk about your startup.

What’s next for BlakBear?

Next up is a trip to India to meet some partners. They use lots of fertilisers over there that we’re great at measuring, so it’s going to be a fascinating trip.

We’re also busy rolling out prototypes of apps and exploring how to get our sensors in food packaging. This will increase shelf life and reduce food waste. It all comes back to optimising food production and consumption. We can’t do that without data.

BlakBear was designed by OPX. Credits to Isabel Tanner, Adam Quilliam and David Bennett.

You can check out the BlakBear website here.