Pheronym’s amazing 6 week-journey at the NSF I-Corps teams program
The challenges, up and downs, surprising discoveries, and meeting amazing people on the way to completing 100 customer discovery interviews.
Pheronym is developing pheromones from microscopic roundworms, nematodes, to control agricultural pests; nematodes, and insects. Our end users are growers, conventional and organic farmers. Our task was very simple: “Talk to 100 growers to understand their pain points with respect to difficult pests”. Traditionally, at I-corps participants get out of the building or go to conferences to meet people for in-person interviews. We could easily go to a few grower conferences and a couple of industry conferences and maybe meet 20- 25 people at each conference. How hard could it be talking to 100 growers?
Getting 100 interviews was a real challenge for a number of reasons. First, due to Coronavirus, we couldn’t “get out of the building” to meet our customers for in-person interviews at the farm or at grower conferences. So, we did the next best thing, phone calls and videoconferencing. On the bright side, virtually getting out of the building opened up the whole world. Second, we quickly learned August and September were bad months to talk to people. Farmers were out in the field, harvesting their crops. We had one grower that couldn’t talk to us for two weeks because he was swamped with the harvest. We finally talked to him after three weeks of telephone tag. Harvest wasn’t the only challenge. Lots of growers didn’t want to talk to us because they thought we were trying to sell them something. Thanks to our industry mentor Dr. Pam Marrone’s network we were able to interview 25 growers.
We still had 75 interviews to go! As an entrepreneur, we had to be optimistic and look on the bright side. We considered this a mixed blessing because we got the opportunity to see the whole agriculture pest control ecosystem through many different points of view. We interviewed potential distributors/channel partners, seed companies, crop consultants, pest control advisors (PCAs), potential partners for manufacturing, land grant university extension specialists, Ag VCs, Ag input companies, conventional and organic growers. One of the first things we learned was that the agricultural pest control ecosystem is a lot more complex than we had thought. It was not as simple as manufacturing a great product and selling it to the farmer to solve their difficult pest problem. There were many forces that can affect a product’s successful market entry. This is also where we learned many lessons.
Everyone had a different take on what was important. For example, Husk fly, a walnut insect pest. To lots of people, it is not a problem because it doesn’t damage the walnut. To a grower, it is a huge problem because it stains the walnut shell, reducing the value of the crop and lowering the grower’s income.
Dealing with big companies is complex and slow compared to small and midsize companies. Let’s start with “How do you bring new technology to a big company’s attention?” At first glance, you may think that the R&D scientists would be the ones bringing new technologies to a big company. To our surprise, it was the technology scouts or business development people who brought the new technology and products to the companies’ attention. The R&D scientists in big companies are important influencers and their opinion is asked for new technology or products. The decision-making process is very complex and includes many people from multiple departments, including R&D scientists. The big company’s decision-making timeline is longer which is anywhere from one to three years. This is not an exaggeration. For example, it took us 6 weeks just to get permission to interview an R&D scientist from a big agri-input company. The big companies would like to test the new product/technology in-house first for a few years compared to small companies which may be OK with studies done by reputable university laboratories and peer-reviewed published results. The take-home message was we need to have at least a couple of years runway to partner with a big company and also backup plans in case the deal falls through.
Some major players that we learned about in the interviews are pest control advisors (PCAs). PCAs are really key players in the pest control ecosystem. They can make or break your product entry. There were two major types of PCAs; employees of ag-input distributors or independent PCAs. They are considered influencers but they are more than that. They have existing relationships with the farmers. They monitor pests and do recommendations. Depending on the farm size they may be employed by farmers and be a part of the decision-making committee. They also do field trials for new products for farmers. Our take-home message was we need to know PCAs and work with PCAs.
Finally, everyone agreed on the decision criteria for a pest control product: Efficacy and cost. How they determined efficacy was very different between specialty crops and row crops. For specialty crops, quality is important, for row crops quantity is important. Row crops were very price sensitive. Specialty crops were also price-sensitive but not as sensitive as row crops. This was critical information for our value proposition; it needs to be customized depending on the market segment. The above lessons were only the tip of the iceberg we could tell you at this moment, but not the last!
We cannot end this article without mentioning two important intangible benefits of the NSF I-corps program. First, we met amazing people with great technologies in the ag-space (Innatrix, PathOtrak, Artimus Robotics) and other spaces including (OPR Icy Regolith, Digital twin, Impressio) as part of the cohort. Also, the customer discovery interviews created a network of 100 people in the agriculture ecosystem who were very interested in our product development. The second was that the NSF I-corps teams program provided a structure, the Business Model Canvas (BMC). As an entrepreneur, you don’t know what you don’t know. The same way our industry mentor, Dr. Pam Marrone, does not know what we don’t know because everyone starts entrepreneurship from a very different place. No ones’ experience is alike, except everyone has to go through the BMC. The structure helped us see where we needed help, where we lack experience, and how we can leverage our industry mentor’s experience and network. In short, the I-corps program helped us utilize our industry mentor’s skills and network very effectively and efficiently.
Stay tuned for an upcoming medium article on identifying the beachhead market. In the first week of I-corps, we interviewed Land O Lakes and were shocked to learn the number of acres infested with soybean cyst nematodes. We immediately realized that seed treatment was our ultimate market, but not our beachhead market.
Authors: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. Dr. Kaplan conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in Space at the International Space Station in 2020. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory, and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service.
Mr. Karl Cameron Schiller is the co-founder and COO of Pheronym. He is an experienced entrepreneur with a BA in economics and an M.Sc. in pharmaceutical economics. Mr. Schiller along with Dr. Kaplan conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in Space at the International Space Station in 2020. Prior to Pheronym, he co-founded Kaplan Schiller Research LLC. and volunteered as president of a not for profit organization. In addition, he was a freelance consultant in pharmaceutical product development, cost-effectiveness analysis, modeling, and statistical analysis. His clients include the University of Florida, the University of Alabama, Florida Medicaid, and Pfizer. Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Schiller co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic, sustainable pest control for farmers and gardeners.