How One Man is Using a Drone and an Intelligence Platform to Reduce Farmers Losses: With Brendan Carroll

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“Global food security is a massive crises that doesn’t get spoken about enough.”
I had the privilege of interviewing Brendan Carroll, founder and CEO of Skycision.

What is your backstory?

I was born outside Chicago and moved to South Florida when I was eight, where I was raised and spent the rest of my childhood. For my undergraduate degree I attended Norwich University, America’s oldest private military college. Once there, I studied computer security and information assurance. I also played four years of football.

After Norwich, I began working in IT risk management, first for a life insurance company, later for the financial services firm Ernst & Young, and lastly with international banking giant Credit Suisse. Shortly thereafter I went back for my masters where I attended Carnegie Mellon’s top nationally ranked information systems management program where I began focusing my expertise on data science.

In my last semester at Carnegie Mellon, I conceived the concept that would grow to later become Skycision. We placed second at a graduate level business competition, and then second at a city level business plan competition. Instead of going back to the world of financial services, I took my signing bonus and anything I had left in my savings account and committed to Skycision full time. Several months later we secured our first investor, I paid back the bank, and Skycision was off to the races. It’s now been two years and Pittsburgh’s Technology Council has identified Skycision as their Startup of the Year. We continue to grow, looking forward to what the future has in store.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In our very first demo to a farmer in Pennsylvania, we took the drone we’d been using at the time to demonstrate the great progress we had made. The hope was to close our first client.

We drove about an hour to the farm and got the two owners and their farm hands to come see the latest progress. We were going to show off our first autonomous flight of the drone.

The moment approached, anticipation rose, and there we were. My two thumbs went down and out on the controller to start the propellers, and it all came down to the final moment. I hit the button that launched the mission, and as if almost in slow motion we saw the drone begin to rise automatically from its stagnant position. At about three feet in the air something went awry, and in a split second the drone took off at full speed toward the farmers and their families that had been spectating. They moved out of the way and it flew full speed into an iron shed where it broke into 8 different pieces.

In a post mortem analysis, we realized that the drone for some reason thought it need to start at the coordinates of 0 lat, 0 long — which is in Africa.

So our first demo didn’t go quite as planned. Our drone tried to fly to Africa, subsequently blew up against an iron trailer, and needless to say we lost that first prospective customer. It wasn’t funny in the moment, but in hindsight it gives us a good laugh to see how far we’ve come from that summer day.

What exactly does your company do?

Skycision provides an intelligence platform for the global agriculture industry. We start by analyzing multispectral imagery captured by drone and satellite to help farmers understand where pest and disease infestations can be impacting their fields.

The average U.S. farmer loses 6 percent of their crops every year to some undetected stress inducing condition, and in developing countries this number comes closer to 35 percent. The current solution for reducing this risk is paying a scout to walk or drive the fields several times per month looking for any problems. The process is manually exhaustive and too often catches problems once it is too late. The imagery we collect captures light spectrum that the human eye does not see. The result is that many times the imagery can identify areas of risk weeks earlier than the human eye, and as a result, we help the grower preserve their bottom line revenue potential with the added possibility of cost savings on over applications of treatments like fertilizers and pesticides.

Skycision goes beyond the imagery assessing soil quality and changing weather patterns to better understand the driving factors in crop performance so our grower’s can make the best decisions in the field.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Skycision is still young, but we’ve used every opportunity to bring positive impact when it presents itself. I’ve coached other aspiring entrepreneurs at Carnegie Mellon or in accelerator programs that I’m affiliated with, we did a charity fundraiser for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Pittsburgh, and most recently we have a project pending that will provide the adolescent children of migrant workers in the greater Salinas region to train to become drone pilots, a great potential side hustle for them.

Most importantly, I see the biggest opportunity to make an impact in developing countries. Global food security is a massive crises that doesn’t get spoken about enough. With a needed increase of 70 percent in food production by 2050, we don’t have the time to wait when it comes to producing more efficiently. We’re in an industry that desperately needs the help we can provide, and I can’t wait to see our influence in enhancing crop productivity to these developing regions in the years to come.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?

  1. You need to have a true sense of purpose. There is no higher calling than an individual’s purpose. If someone is looking for something to start, they’re doing it for the wrong reason. The best CEO’s and entrepreneurs are those driven by purpose and passion. It takes them through the lows and presents a real platform for change and influence.
  2. One needs to be ready to sacrifice everything. You need to be willing to sacrifice your time, your financial comfort, your family, and any sense of security you experience today.
  3. The highs are high and the lows are low. Consider methods and ways to cope with—and more importantly, overcome—depression. Every entrepreneur experiences this in some form at some point, but it’s taboo to talk about it, so people don’t. It’s something that needs to be covered in greater depth as it’s a very real affliction.
  4. The path to success is not linear. There is not a common definition for what success is—it’s different for all of us. By nature, many entrepreneurs are perfectionists, and we’re always focused on what’s on the horizon while constantly comparing ourselves to others in the process. The reality is that not everyone needs to be a billionaire to be successful. Every day that someone wakes up and lives their God-given purpose is a form of success in itself. In an age of content, it’s important to realize the path is never linear, and it’s never as simple as it sounds from that one mentor or in that one blog post you just read. There will be high and lows, dips and valleys. Persistence is absolutely key in meeting the next milestone.
  5. Take a breath and enjoy the ride. Entrepreneurship is most certainly not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people. Much of the journey is difficult and grueling, but in the process we experience moments that are unparalleled in terms of excitement and achievement. It could be the colleagues we make, the people we touch, and the places our journey takes us, but as much as I speak of enduring the lows, one also has to be able to cherish the highs and enjoy the journey.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Elon Musk. The feats he has been able to accomplish with his companies are unparalleled. In every venture he’s undertaken, he’s seen a gap in the world and subsequently worked tirelessly—sacrificing everything to fill that void—and has been successful in doing so.

More importantly, Musk isn’t afraid to sacrifice. I feel like he looks at his life and only sees the value that he can add to the world, as opposed to everything he could potentially lose. In his book, Musk risked everything, nearly going bankrupt running Tesla and SpaceX, when all along he could have retired more than comfortably after his time at Paypal.

He’s the poster child for entrepreneurship. Not just because of what he’s created, but because of his relentless persistence in achieving his ambitions in the face of adversity.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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