In early 2015, Nikhil Vadhavkar and some fellow graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had an idea for a company that would use drones to help farmers collect real-time, actionable data about their crop acreages.
Vadhavkar, who’s now 28, was pursuing a PhD in bioastronautics at the time, so this wasn’t directly in his wheelhouse, but he had experience with drones and saw the idea’s promise. A few months later, the team’s business plan unexpectedly won $100,000 by taking top prize at the 25th annual MIT Entrepreneurship Competition. And, so, Raptor Maps was born.
The company uses drones and tractor-mounted sensors to collect data on a farm’s crop acreage, data that could help farmers better understand their water needs, or to A/B test different fertilizer mixtures, or to track and contain an outbreak of disease. While based in Boston, Raptor Maps conducted pilots projects with potato farmers in Aroostook County, where the startup still employs three part-timers (what Vadhavkar considers his in-the-field R&D team). Because it maintains that Maine presence, the Maine Technology Institute granted the startup a $25,000 seed grant in February 2016.
A few months after receiving the MTI grant, Vadhavkar and his co-founder Eddie Obropta secured a coveted spot in Y Combinator, the most prestigious startup accelerator in the country. It was attending Y Combinator in Silicon Valley that convinced Vadhavkar and Obropta to drop out of their PhD programs at MIT and pursue Raptor Maps full time.
In an interview with Maine Startups Insider, Vadhavkar shares his experiences building Raptor Maps and attending Y Combinator, discusses why the company pivoted from focusing on hardware to software, and why an entrepreneur should do more research before building a product. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Maine Startups Insider: Have you always thought of yourself as an entrepreneur?
Vadhavkar: I was trained as biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University. That’s where I did my undergrad. One of my big experiences there was leading a biomedical engineering design team. It’s a big honor, you have to apply to do it, you have to have a pretty good track record of both academics as well as being good at interacting with people. It’s a year-long program and they don’t tell you, ‘here are the clinical problems you need to solve.’ You and your team actually embed with doctors to figure out from an engineer’s perspective where needs exist in the market, where can you help them deliver patient care better, faster, cheaper. In addition to engineering something to solve that problem, you have the option of going a lot further, to work with the FDA, people in academia, people in the investment community, and actually put together a business plan for how you would take this from…the term is ‘benchtop to bedside.’ Anyone can come up with a prototype of something, but there’s a big difference between that and really understanding how you’d actually get it out into the market to help people. So that’s where I really developed a passion for entrepreneurship. We were really successful in a lot of business plan competitions and things like that. After that I started to see engineering both from a product side, as well as what would it take to get this out into the real world.
So when you went to Johns Hopkins to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering, you weren’t planning to go the entrepreneurship route. You thought you might be designing medical devices or going to medical school?
Yep. And then I really learned about the entrepreneurship part of it and I really liked the idea of forging my own path and not necessarily going down a path that’s a little more predetermined. For me, at least, I knew the PhD would be a good thing for me to do because I wanted the freedom to do entrepreneurship eventually.
I read that you previously led a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate the use of drones for emergency medical supply delivery in developing countries. Is that the undergraduate biomedical engineering project you’re talking about?
No, but that was really interesting. Like I said, from then on I was very interested in entrepreneurship and so when I was a first-year graduate student (at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) we had a global health seminar and part of the seminar was for every team to come up with an idea that they thought could revolutionize global health. And that is the idea our team came up with. We were very interested in technology, and so we thought: ‘What about medical supply delivery?’ So we looked into it and actually wrote the grant application for the Gates Foundation for this class, but we actually ended up receiving the grant, which was fantastic. And so that was the team I ended up leading and we ended up doing everything from building drones to going to Gambia and Zambia to pitch their director of civil aviation. Eventually we combined our efforts for Phase Two and we applied jointly with a company that was called Romotive at the time—now they’re actually known as Zipline. And they’ve really taken that to the next level and I’m really proud of everything they’re doing.
I didn’t really know a lot about drones before the Gates Foundation project. But by the end of it I understood the entire landscape. I could build one from soup to nuts. It was a great experience. And I also learned about the regulations behind drones and what it actually takes for drones to succeed in an operational and resource-constrained environment.
What lessons from that experience have you applied to building Raptor Maps?
Well, there were a couple things. I mean, one is that in any new industry—if it’s really new—there will always be regulatory barriers. And they may seem very daunting at first, but if you are persistent and you actually go through and read the fine print and seek to understand what they are and how you can overcome them, they’re not as daunting as you think they are.
The other big one would be the concept of a minimum viable product and getting out there and testing as quickly as possible. As long as you know that what you’re doing is possible, start calling your potential customers and users and telling them what you’re able to provide and collect feedback. Getting that feedback a lot sooner is really important. So, for example, we got a lot of great feedback from people when we went to Africa, but if I were able to do it over again I think we could have had those conversations a year sooner, before we had anything physical. You think you need to take a prototype to someone, but that’s not necessarily the case.
I read that the seed of what is now Raptor Maps was planted while you were doing a mapping project with NASA while getting your PhD in bioastronautics. Tell me your startup’s origin story.
So, coming out of the Gates Foundation project, we were seeing a lot of applications [for drones] across a lot of different industries. If you go back a few years and read some of those industry reports, farming was one of the industries that seemed like it was going to make a lot of sense because you have big acreages, but you also don’t have very crowded airspace. There were drone companies already selling into the agriculture market, so we certainly didn’t come up with the idea. But the more I started looking into it—that produce and specialty crop acreage was going to be a really big focus—the more I recognized that higher value land with the crops that need a lot more TLC, and where quality matters a lot more, would be a much smarter way to apply drone technology. And so the good thing about the NASA field deployment was we got to see what NASA was doing and what state-of-the-art drone technology they were using. It was nice because we knew what type of drones were out there for the average consumer, we knew what people were selling in the agriculture space and we also got to see from a mapping perspective the type of drones NASA was using to map our geological features. That helped inform what we needed to be building.
You saw farming as an application for drone technology and you decided to go for it. That’s when you applied for the entrepreneurship competition?
So, bringing back a lot of those lessons from the Gates Foundation project, the first thing I did was I called a ton of people. This is where Maine starts to come into it because recognizing that specialty crops were going to be a big focus, we started looking around and asking ourselves where we can reasonably expect to access people in the industry and talk to them and test on their land and understand what their problems are. And we started looking around at the surrounding states and that’s when we realized that Maine has a lot of potato acreage up in Aroostook County. I was a resident advisor at MIT, they call them graduate resident tutors, and one of my students I remembered was a cousin of a potato grower, so I talked to him, he made some introductions and I also just started cold calling a lot people. So I was able to put together a pretty good map of how the industry works, how it flows, what the needs might be, before we put in the application for the entrepreneurship competition and won the $100,000.
How many phone calls did you make? How much due diligence did you really do?
I’d say probably 50 to 100 calls, but that wasn’t just in Maine. There were a lot of other people too. I just really like Maine because I think the people tend to be friendlier and open to innovation. I think a big part of it is that they want to bring the yields up to bring it closer to the western states, so there’s a lot of motivation to apply technology and ask, ‘How can we make our production more efficient?’
Tell me about the evolution of the company. What was the specific pitch that you made at MIT and how has it changed?
That’s a great question. So the pitch was initially about how we could build really, really good drone technology in order to provide up-to-date information for farmers and actionable information for farmers. But what we quickly realized is that building really high-capability drones, even if it’s kind of a good price point for what those drones can do, it’s not necessarily what the industry needs and is ready for today.
So instead, we’ve evolved to make much better use of geotagged imagery in general, whether it’s from drones or from people’s cellphones or from imagery taken with harvester-mounted cameras during harvest, and actually process that in order to reduce costs and save people time.
And so we’ve pulled back a bit from pushing a specific technology and focusing much more on the software. I think it’s really important that we make it generalizable so that no matter where people are, no matter what people actually have in terms of hardware, they can get some use out of what we’re doing. You can’t wait until everyone has a certain device or certain piece of hardware before they can see value from what you’re doing. They don’t have to make this big investment decision of, you know, do I need to buy an agriculture drone and get special training on that. That’s a much higher barrier to using technology, so trying to work within the current landscape is a big lesson that we’ve learned.
So you originally were going to be selling the hardware and Raptor Maps-branded drones with a software package?
Exactly, as well as the service. But the other cool thing is that [the Federal Aviation Commission] has made it so that people in local communities, if they want to fly drones commercially and take money for doing that, it’s much easier. So that’s great for us because what I would much rather do is empower someone in the local community to go out, get a drone, get that license and collect that data to actually help their local farmers and then we can provide the software back end to make that process much more painless for them and for the farmers. One of our big software products allows them to take in all their geotagged imagery, both from drones as well as smartphones, analyze it, annotate it, and then share it with the farmers.
How long did it take you and your team to realize that you needed to shift towards providing the software and service. Was it a long, drawn-out realization or was it a quick Aha moment?
I would say it was a long, drawn-out realization because there definitely is still going to be utility for a lot of the specialized hardware, but it’s just a question of being able to scale it. So I think if you were to only focus on that, you wouldn’t have enough business to keep growing. Instead it’s a shift for us to recognize that some of that really advanced technology is on the horizon, but you’ve got to crawl before you can walk and run. And so enabling people to use precision agriculture with easier-to-access and easier-to-use hardware today is going to be a very important stepping stone that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Setting aside this discussion of kind of the value proposition that you’re bringing. What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced leading your startup?
I think the biggest challenge is to really understand what people want. I mean this goes for any business. You’ve got to spend a lot of time with them. But for agriculture, what people need changes at different times during the growing season. So you know the first summer we were doing this, we went out at a critical times: planting, midseason, just before harvest, and during harvest, and you’d think that would be enough to really give you a good sense of what people need. But we found that the longer we spent somewhere, the more information we were able to get in terms of assessing the market and figuring out what people need. So that’s a big challenge for us just coming from the technology side of it, but that’s also what makes it incredibly rewarding for us because that’s what we love doing, actually working with our end users.
When you started Raptor Maps, you had another co-founder, Forrest Meyen. It seems like he’s not involved anymore. Can you tell me what happened and the challenges startups face finding the right team?
I think the biggest thing with startup companies is you’ve got to really figure out where you’re going to be able to dedicate most of your time. And so in terms of finding the right team, the biggest part of it was when Eddie and I applied to Y Combinator and did Y Combinator, that’s when we realized we were at a really important juncture where we loved our PhDs and we loved our labs and our advisors, but we also recognized that in order for this company to succeed and do really well, that was a sacrifice that needed to be made.
That was a really tough decision and conversation and it is very personal for everybody. For Forrest, his PhD is really interesting and that meant a lot to him. But I think he also recognized that it’s really hard when you’re starting a company and I think if you ask almost anyone who you’ve interviewed, I’m sure they’re probably giving it 110 percent, and that’s what it takes.
You brought up Y Combinator. What was your experience there? There are now hundreds of startup accelerator programs out there, and while YC is one of the most prestigious, I hear mixed reviews about the value accelerators provide startup founders.
So at Y Combinator they’re both investors and mentors and they’re really good at balancing those things. But at the end of the day, they’re there to really help guide you and they’re there to really help you focus on the company. There are a lot of things that startups do that you think matter, but that until you really have that good product-market fit may not necessarily be the best use of your time. So the great thing about the YC partners is they’ve built successful companies and they have some stories of spectacular successes and some stories of spectacular failures. And so really, they want you to learn from them. They want you to take advantage of them as a resource, both before we were in California, while we’re in California, and even now. You can schedule time with any of the Y Combinator partners and you can be very real with them about the opportunities we see, the challenges we’re facing and get their feedback. And then the other thing that they do that I really like is they also emphasize that their feedback is through the lens of their own experience, but you shouldn’t necessarily take it as gospel and so they kind of help you understand and integrate all the different feedback that you would get from everyone, both within YC and outside of it, in order to take the advice that can help you grow your company and filter out the things that may not necessarily be relevant to you. So building some of those skills is a big part of the value that YC provides.
Did you leave YC thinking about Raptor Maps differently than when you entered YC?
Yeah, definitely. Some of the evolution that we talked about—learning to focus more on the software and enabling people to use the technology that’s already out there—I think a lot of that thinking evolved during YC.
You announced in December that you raised an undisclosed amount of money from the Commercial Drone Fund. Can you talk to me about your experience and thought process around fundraising?
Well, without getting into the specifics, I think for us when it comes to fundraising we’re constantly looking at what’s the added value and is it a good relationship. So in the case of the Commercial Drone Fund, what I really like about them is they want to ensure that drone technology—and they have a very broad view of what drone technology means—can be translated into actual use where people are going to see value out of it. So they’re thinking very long term. And so, for us, when we started talking with the Commercial Drone Fund, I realized our visions and our values really aligned well and that’s what made them a really good partner for us. And then with Y Combinator, you end up being exposed to a lot of other really high-quality investors, so you start to have those conversations and build up those relationships and that’s how we’re able to put together a good funding round and make sure that we have enough to do what we want to do.
So have you raised money from investors besides Commercial Drone Fund? You filed paperwork with the SEC last May that revealed you raised $400,000 by selling equity.
That Form D does not account for post-Demo Day investment [he’s referring to Y Combinator’s Demo Day, which took place in August 2016]. I can tell you we have other investors, but I can’t disclose who they are or the amount.
So, you started out in Maine doing some pilot projects up in Aroostook County, but you are to a point now where you actually have paying clients?
Yep, so we have paying clients for the harvest monitoring system as well as our inspection software.
Do you have a software-as-a-service, monthly-recurring-revenue-type model, or do you sell the software on a one-time-fee basis?
What are your larger goals for the business? What would you like Raptor Maps to look like in five years?
I think it’s being able to get smarter and smarter. So right now, like I said, we’re providing the tools to help people do inspections and catch problems earlier and be able to make remedies and I think what we would love to do is start to bring in a lot of the predictive components of it, where instead of reacting to things we’re seeing, we can be even more proactive. And I think a lot of those capabilities come as you start to accumulate a lot more data and really understand what are the most common problems we’re seeing and how can we start to predict them. So I’m really excited for the predictive part of it.
Given all that you’ve experienced, what advice do you have for people who are thinking about starting their own business?
Well, besides the fact I believe people should do it—though we’re a little bit biased because that’s what we’re doing—I think doing a good amount of diligence early on is really important before you go out and spend a lot of time and effort to build something. I think you need to really understand if you build something, is it something people are going to want to buy? The more that you can understand beforehand, I think the more and better guidance your business is going to have in its early days. It’s going to help you gain more success faster.