May 2, 2018
Data and beekeeping.
These aren’t two things that you’d normally think go hand-in-hand. But that’s exactly what Ellie Symes is trying to change.
Symes, a 2015 graduate of Indiana University, and two classmates started The Bee Corp to offer real-time data insights to beekeepers about the status of their hives.
Honeybees are responsible for pollinating a third of the foods humans consume on a regular basis. Without bees, it would be nearly impossible to produce the foods that humans have come to rely on in their diet. Yet, today’s agriculture industry has introduced a number of pollutants and chemicals that have put the bee population at risk.
“We wanted to spend our careers solving problems that matter to us,” Symes says. “Food issues were a major focus of my undergraduate studies. The beekeeping industry is a great fit for our interests because it directly impacts production of many staple foods in our diet.”
The Bee Corp came into formation when her, Simon Kuntz, and Wyatt Wells were challenged by members of the IU Foundation to pursue their passion beyond the boundaries of the IU campus. They took their idea for The Bee Corp and entered a business-pitch competition, Building Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (BEST), hosted by the School of Informatics & Computing and the Kelley School of Business at IU. The Bee Crop won the grand-prize seed investment of $100,000, earning the team’s initial seed fund.
FILLING A DATA BEEKEEPING GAP
Symes, Kuntz, and Wells noticed that there was little to no objective data collected on the health and activity of beehives, even though the beekeeping industry directly impacts the production of many staple foods.
“Though there are a number of companies that offer sensors designed for beehives, no company had made much progress towards interpreting the data being collected,” Wells says. “We saw an opportunity to specialize in analyzing data collected from beehive sensors.”
The sensors are built upon a series of algorithms that can interpret hive temperature data and classify various states found in the hive. With IoT sensors to process algorithms, The Bee Corp churns out real-time insights on the status of beekeepers’ hives.
WHERE SILICON VALLEY MEETS AGRICULTURE
Taking data and applying it to food production systems has revolutionized how farmers manage their production and make routine decisions. It’s become another big space for potential technological disruption and has been coined AgTech.
In a 2017 article by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, researchers discuss how AgTech has transformed the farming industry.
“The Internet of Things development, wirelessly connecting all kind of objects and devices in farming and the supply chain, is producing many new data that are real-time accessible,” the study states. “These big amounts of data provide access to explicit information and decision-making capabilities at a level that was not possible before. Many new and innovative start-up companies are eager to sell and deploy all kind of applications to farmers of which the most important ones are related to sensor deployment, benchmarking, predictive modelling and risk management.”
The Bee Corp saw the potential in AgTech to revolutionize the beekeeping industry.
“This wave of tech adoption has not reached the beekeeping industry, despite its adjacency to agricultural production,” Wells says. “In order for the beekeeping industry to thrive alongside other agriculture industries in the 21st century, data-driven precision management must be incorporated.”
SAVING THE WORLD IN ONE SEMESTER
During her sophomore year at IU, Symes took a course titled “Saving the World in One Semester,” that would help spearhead her passion for beekeeping. Through the course, Symes met Professor David Rubinstein.
Rubinstein says he saw a “generosity of spirit” in Symes as a student. He asked her to lead a project in the “Managing and Leading” course, where Symes guided student team to analyze and develop strategies for her startup efforts.
“My students loved Ellie’s Bee Project,” Rubinstein says. “It brought ‘real’ and ‘now’ and ‘build for the future’ into the large lecture class and made the class intimate, hands-on, and can-do.”
‘THE IMPORTANCE OF SPIRIT’
After winning $100,000 from the business-pitch competition, Symes, Kuntz, and Wells set out to purchase hives for their own large-scale beehive operation and research. Fast forward two years and now The Bee Corp is working to develop their latest solution for California’s almond pollination, where 70% of the nation’s beehives are needed each year.
Looking back at their journey, Symes, Kuntz, and Wells have made a lot of progress. But perhaps their greatest challenge thus far has been facing aversion to failure as entrepreneurs.
“Coming from an academic setting where success criteria are concrete, deadlines are firm, and feedback is constant, it took a major adjustment to grow comfortable with self-accountability and motivation,” Wells says.
Yet, in Rubinstein’s eyes, Symes and her team have what it takes to succeed in the entrepreneurial world.
“Among the many insights I have learned from them is the importance of spirit,” he says. “Spirit alone is worthless but, without spirit, everything else is worthless. I want my students to work hard to change and brighten the world. Ellie is the living proof that possibilities can become real.”