Take 6: Klein Ileleji, College of Agriculture, College of Engineering and JUA Technologies International
Klein Ileleji is a professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and an affiliate of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. He also is co-founder and CEO/chief technology officer of JUA Technologies International Inc.
Earlier in May, the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Ileleji as the Indiana and the Great Lakes Region Exporter of the Year. He also was a featured panelist in a session during the SBA National Small Business Week Virtual Summit.
Ileleji generously shared his time to answer our questions.
Question: What led you to pursue the innovation that led to JUA Technologies International?
Klein Ileleji: I was working on a capacity-building effort in stored grain management in Nigeria and Ghana in 2010. It was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, which led to my focus on developing grain dryers for smallholders. This led to seed funding from the Global Food Policy Research Institute at Purdue led by Professor Gebisa Ejeta. It also led to research collaborations with Purdue faculty and research scientists in Kenya and Senegal through USAID funding for Purdue-led USAID Feed-the-Future Lab for Post-Harvest Handling and Food Processing.
The USAID funding led to the development of a multipurpose cabinet solar dryer, and a portable solar dryer, Dehytray™, exported by JUA Technologies for which I received the 2022 Indiana and Great Lakes Region Exporter of the Year award. Both technologies are patented by Purdue and exclusively licensed to JUA Technologies International. The trade name Dehytray™ is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office by JUA Technologies International.
It is important to note that developing a multipurpose dryer to handle multiple crops then pivoting to focus on solar drying of produce and specialty horticultural crops rather just maize (corn) — which was the focus of the USAID lab — was driven by my interaction with farmers in Kenya and Senegal. I was surprised the majority of farmers and extension agents who came for our training asked whether the dryer could dry fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs. This was their interest, even though we were there to teach them about drying maize.
The question becomes, “Do you ignore what the beneficiary really wants, even though your grant focus wasn’t in this area, or do you pivot to accommodate to solve their problem of interest?” No, don’t ignore what the beneficiary wants, rather try as much as possible to accommodate addressing their needs once you have become aware of them. This is why we pivoted to focus on drying horticultural crops (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, etc.), where up to 50% post-harvest losses can occur with smallholders. Horticultural crops are also rich in micro-nutrients, an important component of human health. This is why our technologies are quite important and relevant to solving food and nutrient insecurity.
Q: How would you describe the work that JUA Technologies International does and its impact on people’s lives?
Ileleji: We are working on food and nutrient security issues, food drying so that post-harvest losses can be reduced, farmers produce quality foods to meet premium markets and people consume a health-nutrient-rich diet of fruits and vegetables year-round.
Additionally, smallholder farmers need to produce quality dried crops so that they are able to sell them at competitive and premium prices. Economic empowerment of smallholders is also at the heart of our mission.
Q: What wisdom can you provide to someone interested in moving forward with commercialization?
Ileleji: Tap into the available entrepreneurial ecosystem in your community. In my case, it was at Purdue University and the Indiana Small Business Development Corporation. Build meaningful partnerships and be ready to pivot if necessary.
Q: What is something you wish everyone understood about your work?
Ileleji: Purdue offers me a great opportunity to work with students and faculty, exposes me to world-class talents and resources, and takes me outside campus to be engaged with communities locally and abroad where I can transfer my research and ideas to the real world, learn about problems I need to tackle or just be exposed to ideas and information. I’m really blessed to have the best of both worlds.
Q: How do you define success?
Ileleji: In my opinion, success is fluid. It covers a wide spectrum and depends on what the focus is on at a given point in time. It can range from what I’ve achieved within my family first, especially with respect to being a husband to my wife and father to my kids, to my impact on my students and people I come in contact with, to what I’ve done professionally. Ultimately, my relationship with my family trumps all and this would be the most meaningful at the end of my life.
Q: What is something that your colleagues may not know about you?
Ileleji: Since I set my eyes on an airplane close up, when my dad took me to the airport in Kaduna, Nigeria, when I was five years old, I’ve always loved the idea of being a pilot. In fact, this was my first career choice coupled with being an aeronautical engineer, but now it is my long-term hobby choice when time and money permit. I’m glad and very satisfied with my current career choice but I can’t shake off the need to fly. Hopefully, I’ll be able to achieve this someday in the near future.
Thank you Klein Ileleji for participating in the Take 6 feature!