The Bee Corp with Ellie Symes

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In this episode, I chat with Ellie Symes, founder and CEO of The Bee Corp. You can learn more about The Bee Corp here: https://www.thebeecorp.com.

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In this episode, I chat with Ellie Symes, founder and CEO of Bee Corp, a corporation with the mission to empower growers and beekeepers by delivering data analytics into beehive health. The data they provide helps commercial scale growers ensure effective pollination of their crops.

Bee Corp started a couple years ago, and their first product was Queen’s Guard, a product that used temperature sensors to determine if the queen was alive in a beehive or not. For the next level of growth, they reallocated their resources to launch a new product, an infrared camera which is placed inside of a beehive, which is to be launched in February 2019.

Ellie shares how they take existing technology and use it to ascertain data which is important, in this instance, in the beekeeping and agricultural industry. She details the research process that went into the growth of their business, and how Bee Corp plans to implement this technology in order to acquire new data in other industries.

Topics In This Episode:

  • Importance of conducting research before launching a new product

  • How to scale up your business to the large commercial space

  • Difference between being a technology company and a data company

  • How to find a need in the industry and creating a product to fit that need

  • Conducting customer interviews to determine the best way to add efficiency to an industry

  • The importance of research allocation in order to focus on key areas of growth

  • The future of infrared technology to grow within this industry, as well as others


Full Transcript

Mike:
Welcome to the podcast. Today we have Ellie Symes, who's the founder and CEO of Bee Corp. Ellie, welcome.

Ellie:
Thanks for having me, Michael. 

Mike:
All right, why don't we start with a quick pitch for the Bee Corp and what you guys do?

Ellie:
Yeah, the Bee Corp does data analytics on beehives to help commercial-scale growers ensure effective pollination. So, what that means is the specialty crop growers rent about, usually about two to three hives per acre to pollinate their crops. They do this on a third of the food we eat in the US. Those hives are priced based on the size of the colony, and we're just replacing the manual inspection process growers have to pay for to make sure the right colony sizes and quality showed up. So we do that through taking an infrared image of the beehive, and with that, we can calculate the size of the colony using our data analytics. 

Mike:
Go ahead and maybe paint a picture of where you guys are at as a company. That can be any sort of any metrics you want to share, number of hives that you've assessed, or number of customers, number of employees, fundraising revenue, anything you're open to sharing.

Ellie:
Yeah, absolutely. So, we started this company a couple years ago and we started it with the mission of doing hive health monitoring, to help bee keepers better manage their hives. So we had our first product that came out on the market at the beginning of 2017 called Queens Guard, and it used a temperature sensor to tell if the queen bee was alive in the hive or not. This year, we received a National Science Foundation grant, so an SBIR grant to research how to take our hive monitoring product for backyard beekeepers to the larger commercial space. And the first part of the grant, they had us actually interview, it was 30 end users. We ended up interviewing over 200, so customer discovery is extremely important, because what we learned is, our customers customer, so the beekeeper is our customer, their customer, the grower, was demanding hive information that we were doing back in the days of Queens Guard.

Ellie:
And the only way they're obtaining this information today is to have manual inspectors go out and peek at the hives and write down what they're finding on pieces of paper. So once we learned this, we said "Oh, this is a fantastic market opportunity for us to move into," the grower market - there's many more opportunities than the beekeeper market. And we decided to tweak our Queens Guard hive thermal analysis product to meet this need. So we switched from a temperature sensor to an infrared camera and this has now allowed us to take our analysis to the next level to actually calculate the population inside the hive for those growers.

Ellie:
So we've been very excited about this, but we made the shift this year. We did those interviews first part of the year, and then started the development early spring. So the development is finished, we're ready to go for our launch in February, so this is very much our busy season, and we're signing up growers now for our February launch. We've got a little over 3000 hives booked for February and have got folks in the pipeline. We want to do 10000 hives this year for February and it's looking like we're going to hit that goal. After that, we'll do a few more developments and bring this into new markets, so we're really excited. The scope of the impact we're making and hives we're analyzing is much bigger with this opportunity than the few hundred we had back with Queens Guard. So we've been very excited about that.

Mike:
All right, I have a ton of questions now and I'm not sure where to start. I want to ... let's talk about what the grower wants in terms of information, because one of the things that was interesting to me is you said your customers customer, right? So it is the beekeeper who you're selling to? Or are you selling to the grower directly and then they're asking their beekeepers to use this? Can you break that down for me a little bit?

Ellie:
Absolutely. So, we're laser focused right now on the grower segment, because they're currently already paying for these manual inspections to calculate the size of the colonies on the hives that they're renting from the beekeeper. So they normally put this in the contract, so they very much are the demand driven side.

Mike:
And for the grower, they want to know the size of that because they're paying? Is what they pay somehow related to the size of the colony?

Ellie:
Yes, exactly, I should've stipulated that. Yeah, it's directly related to the price of the colonies.

Mike:
Got it. All right. So then the grower is your payer, and then they go to the beekeepers, who they're working with, and say "Hey you have to use this to do that assessment."

Ellie:
Yeah. And actually, next years development, they'll have an application where the growers can go out and sample the hives themselves. They're really excited about this to be the new standard, but we're also making sure this is something the beekeepers are interested in. We've been in that market for the last couple years, and they're very important to us, the beekeepers. So we interviewed over one hundred commercial beekeepers as well, and they're also looking for a better solution to hive strength analysis. So, they're looking for more transparency than inspectors going out and randomly estimating the size of the colony. They're excited that this could be more objective data. They could put themselves behind because on the beekeepers side, they don't feel like they're getting enough value out of those contracts, they feel like they deserve more. Funny enough, on the grower side, you have them feeling like they're paying too much. So there's just this lack of transparency that both sides are interested in.

Ellie:
So, in 2019, we'll actually start delivering this service directly for beekeepers as well, so they can use this to make sure they're meeting those contracts to those grower needs. So it's actually something both sides of the market are interested in which is great.

Mike:
That's awesome. All right, now my next question from that quick overview from before is probably a bit more personal in nature, just because I'm intrigued with how this works. You said on the original Queens Guard sensor, it would monitor the temperature of the Queen specifically? Is that right? So the queen is a different temperature than the other bees?

Ellie:
It monitored the temperature of the hive. And the bees actually control the temperature of the hive to incubate the eggs. So because they do that, we were able to recognize when they weren't doing those temperature controls, because they don't do the extra work if they don't need to. We were able to quickly recognize that there was not a laying queen inside the hive.

Mike:
Interesting. Nice, okay, perfect, thanks. And you don't offer that product anymore, correct?

Ellie:
Not at this time. We decided to roll it down. Start ups, we've got to be masters in resource allocation, and we looked at what we were bringing in, and how much time we were spending supporting our customers and we just decided that this opportunity with the growers was a much bigger opportunity and could help the beekeepers as well, so we've completely shifted our focus there, and I'm so glad we did because we had the resources to get this product out by February which we probably wouldn't have been able to do supporting two products as well.

Mike:
When you think about competitors for the Bee Corp, who do you think of? Do you have a direct competitor in this space who's already doing this?

Ellie:
Our main competition is those manual inspectors. So that is very much the status quo, competition. Right now they're more expensive than our offering, but it's what growers are used to. And that's a very powerful thing in agriculture. So that's definitely our competition, and we've stacked ourselves up to make sure we're better than manual inspections on all aspects and all fronts, but there's just one thing in Ag which is trust and that takes time to build. So that's not an insignificant thing to do, and we've been very conscious about how we're building trust with the growers we're working with. So that's really the competition right now in this grower pollination space. There's lots of companies doing hive monitoring for beekeepers, using sensors.

Mike:
For the growers, are those manual inspectors a bunch of 1099 independent people who just work a region, or is there like a company I would call and they would send people out to do this? Meaning, a little bit more organized. And I guess, while you're thinking about that, the reason I'm asking is if it's a more organized thing, is there an opportunity for you to potentially partner with one of those who might be more progressive and viewing you as a way to potentially keep that business versus lose it all together?

Ellie:
Yes, actually. So I'll touch on your second question, then your first. We interviewed inspectors as well, and I already mentioned this is something beekeepers want, this is something growers want, but it actually is something inspectors want as well. And we're not focused on this part of the market right now, but inspectors we interviewed can't meet their demand, because of how long it takes them to go through hives. So they're interested in this tool really to help them fulfill their contracts of folks that they're interested in. They get really booked up, there's waiting lists for growers, so they're definitely an opportunity.

Ellie:
Now, you can sense from your first question on why we're not targeting it is because it's much more fragmented, like you said. There's some beekeepers that do these inspections, some people even come in from out of state. There's some county inspection offices that do these and they charge for it. There is one or two companies that do this sort of on the side with a couple other things, but it definitely is fragmented. We have been able to find a lot of those inspectors, I think we interviewed 20 or 30 of them, and they're definitely an opportunity for us down the road. But exactly like was getting at, we looked at what's the most efficient way to get this product out on the market and it very much is right now the growers, by targeting them.

Mike:
You think about the product roadmap. So you've already mentioned right now you're very focused on the growers, there's probably ... and to whatever extent you're open to talking about some of this stuff, I'd love to know as you think six months, 12 months, 24 months out, what you would change to make it better for beekeepers? Is that just a different user experience? I'd love to know a little bit more about that. And then are there things that you can do in the future as whether it's extending this product or new products that can help, like if your colony is under population or over population, as you then think of okay you've potentially identified problems, do you think you'll be introducing technology to help resolve those or deal with those issues?

Mike:
Anyway, that was a long way of saying "I'd love to hear your technology roadmap." Would you be willing to talk about where this goes?

Ellie:
Our vision, yeah. So, very much the modeling work is in a very good state, since we have over 40 million records in our database and several years of experience with monitoring the thermal dynamics inside the hive. So that's definitely been our secret sauce. We do have some, just user interface changes for beekeepers, and that's something that we're building out in early 2019. And then our real vision is to bring this infrared image automation to other verticals. We're interested in targeting additional verticals. We've had some inbound interest from completely different industries in agriculture that use infrared and want to use our backend to automate the image analysis. And that's really where we're going.

Ellie:
We want to be an infrared image analysis company, while right now we're laser focused on this incredible market opportunity between growers and beekeepers. That's really where it's going and then to get into those next verticals we'll be working directly with strategic partners we've been talking to, to customize the analysis to make sure it meets their needs.

Mike:
How big is the bee market opportunity? The grower opportunity? Alone.

Ellie:
Globally, it's a 4.2 billion hive inspection, bottom up market. Based on the number of hives used globally.

Mike:
Woof. And that's where you're starting and then there's other opportunities past that further verticals, that's fantastic. 

Ellie:
Exactly. And that doesn't include working with research institutions, non profits, other companies and organizations that are interested in the aggregated data. That's not included in the market calculation, and that's obviously an easy road to go down. With the stipulation that we are doing opt in for growers to do that. So, it's a big thing in Ag for grower's data and we are not sharing data from growers that don't want their hive data shared. So, I will say that is an important stipulation that I always mention when we're talking about the data aspect.

Mike:
Do you use off the shelf cameras or do you guys have your own technology that you're giving for these inspections?

Ellie:
Our business all along has been let's use cheap sensors and provide rich analytics to the end user. So we always do off the shelf sensors, we're not electrical engineers, there has been millions, probably billions of dollars invested in sensor technology and it is at a great place. So we're taking advantage of that by investing in our data and our data science team to use those sensors to derive good insights. So we do work with a hardware partner, we did with Queens Guard, we have a hardware partner with this new infrared, and that's what allows us to really get to market quickly, but also do it at a price point that's affordable for this market, this grower market. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, basically.

Mike:
Yeah, that's great. What's been the biggest challenge, and I guess you already mentioned this a little bit with the Ag industry and trust and personal relationships. Has that been the biggest challenge as you've tried to reach out to growers and start up these conversations, or is it the geographic difference of maybe not being as close to the growers geographically as where the work is happening? I'd love your thoughts on it as you guys have explored scaling that market over the last 12 months, what have been some of the bigger issues that you have faced?

Ellie:
We've been very conscious on how we built trust with our growers, and I think we have a fantastic strategy on how we do that. Same thing with the geographic proximity, we've got connections and presence with these markets. The main market we're targeting is the almond market in California. So we are out there a lot ourselves, but we've got presence and connections there to help bring in leads. Probably on the challenge side, especially for this year, I mean this year if I could put a theme to it: one, product market fit is what we've presented, because now we get that after doing all this customer discovery and having a very successful trade show that we just got back from a couple weeks ago, but the other one I would say is just resource allocation. We've been very conscious this year on what is central, what is the most important thing we need to move the business forward. So we've been very conscious all year about not getting too excited about all the features we could add in this technology. We stripped it down to the bare bones, we stripped our team down to the bare bones as well, meaning everybody is working on crucial aspects of the business.

Ellie:
And that is, I think, much more of a challenge because you really have to set aside exciting ideas and ideas you want to work on and really diligently go through and make sure everything you're doing day to day is the most important thing to be doing that day. And that is very challenging. But that focus that we've built, looking back, was so crucial to getting where we are today. And I'm going to be very interested after this launch in February on how our team reshifts towards another focused goal. That's not too far off in the horizon. So we're already trying to think about how do we continue to generate this motivation? It was incredible to see it, but that's probably way more challenging than the market, the technical aspects, because all of those are problems that can be solved and thought through and strategized around. This one is much more of sort of a deeper understanding of what's needed to be done, and then the discipline to do it.

Mike:
I like when you said the crucial aspects of the business and getting everybody focused on those. If somebody's listening to this who hasn't started a business and is kind of romanticizes the idea of "I'm going to build a product, I'm going to launch it, people are going to love it," I would love for you to riff a little bit on what are those crucial aspects of the business? What's the blocking and tackling that your team is focused on right now?

Ellie:
Two main functions. Rehearsing what we need to do for the product launch, make sure we are ready to go and clean and tidy, so we're just right now in testing phase with everything in the technology. Another thing that's important for people listening is to set aside way more time than you need for testing. We set aside about two and a half months, and it's been very important for us, and now we're getting to tie up some things we didn't think we'd have time for, which is fun. That's on the technical side. And then on the other side it's just finishing the sales effort and getting a great group of growers together for this first year. That's been it, those two things are the main focus, as well.

Ellie:
And then we've got another SBIR grant to apply for in February, so that's definitely probably the third thing we've been working and doing. They're pretty long grants

Mike:
Yeah, but that's like 45 days away. That's forever.

Ellie:
I know, but in February we're going to be delivering the product, so it's really not 45 days away. But we've been working on that too.

Mike:
Awesome. Do you see any new technologies coming out, like maybe they're a little too bleeding edge right now and not something that you think you could leverage but as they mature maybe three, four years out it might be something you would look at? As you look at those kind of commercial technologies that are out there and available to you today, what, if anything, has you excited for ways you may be able to leverage it down the road?

Ellie:
For our business?

Mike:
Yeah. And maybe not even in this vertical. Maybe it's when this is more mature, that would allow us to go after this vertical, because it would be able to give us this imaging data that nobody can get today. Or whatever the case may be. 

Ellie:
Geez. I mean with what we're doing, infrared's been around for decades, and it's at a really incredible point, and in the most crucial point. We do have some small changes that we want done with the infrared hardware that are pretty minute, but it's really there. I guess my best way I could answer this is talking about the sensor and IoT aspect. So, we were very much, I don't know if you'd still consider us an IoT company, we're using infrared cameras that attach to the back of any smartphone to take these images and then they get uploaded to our cloud servers. So that to me is not really in the realm of IoT, but some might consider it. 

Ellie:
Back when we were doing sensor technology, the biggest limiting factor today for IoT, especially in Ag applications, is battery life. It's really not there, and isn't caught up to how amazing some of the other aspects of sensor technology and cellular connectivity have gone. That was one of our biggest challenges, was one even just finding sensors that can operate on battery, because there is no power in these bee yards, in these apiaries, or out in the fields when they're pollinating. There's no AC power you can plug into, you have to rely on battery technology. You can use solar, but again the more components you add, like solar, the more complicated the sensors get, more expensive and hard to keep operating.

Ellie:
That definitely is, I think, one of the biggest things holding the IoT space back in Ag and when people crack how small batteries can be powerful and last a long time and deal with different weather conditions, that's going to be huge and people are going to make a lot of money to our partners, the hardware partners that need to source that technology. And then when that's there, that definitely opens the doors to what we could do with both our infrared technology and then other technologies that would help growers and beekeepers, because just as it is today, the economics and the battery life are just not there to have a sustainable, successful product in that space. 

Mike:
When you think about what creates a defensible market for you, because it's not the technology, what are the couple of things that you zero in on? Is it, you said 40 million records already, which is a pretty impressive number. So is it that anybody else who wanted to go in this space would have to race to catch up, or I'd just love your thoughts on ... because there are no direct competitors today, if somebody were to try to be a fast follower in this space, what are the things that keep you out in front of them? 

Ellie:
Yeah, the moat we've built around ourselves is our data analytics capabilities. So, the records of data very much help, but it's a network effect. So, the more customers we have, the more hives we're imaging, is just going to make that data more powerful as well. So, it sort of multiplies in that way. That's huge, but it's not just the massive data, it's the amount of time we've collected that data over. And that's what, if somebody started today would literally just take them the amount of time to get that. Because that's been extremely important for us. So that's a limiting factor, and our data science team is incredible. We've put together a great team of physics experts, thermal analysis experts, to really build this, and that's an expensive investment. And those guys are incredible with what they've done with this modeling.

Ellie:
And then our other benefit is we really know this space. We've been in the beekeeping space, we've been in the grower space, we have a very good strategy for customer acquisition and growing in the market, as well as a reputation and connections that we've built so far, and that's important and that takes time and that's why I don't talk too much about how we're bringing in customers and what we've done in that way, because we love our strategy around that too. So we think with those two things we can get out ahead and you're right, there probably always is competitors that come in after a time, but it's going to take them a while, I think, to one even get in the space but two, we want to be way far ahead. So that even if they do catch up, we're already on to the next vertical and conquering things over there too.

Mike:
Nice. How often do you find yourself, if ever, taking a look out there to just see if anybody else has entered the space? Do you have any sort of routine around keeping track of the market and who might be a new entrant and who else you've been tracking and how they've changed over time? Do you do any, do you have any processes for that? 

Ellie:
Yep, we pretty much know every player in the bee technology space, we've even met several of them. And how we find out about them, we're subscribed to several different newsletters and ways to figure that out. But also, I mean, we have a huge network, so anytime a bee technology company enters the market I get it sent to me about 30 times by different people. So please keep sending those, they're so helpful. But that means I have to respond about 30 times to it. So, it's great, it's great validation that hey, this beekeeping industry needs to be overhauled. I think some of the companies are working great approaches to it, and everyone's got their different spin.

Ellie:
Our spin has obviously been this grower pollination's aspect, but definitely we're keeping tabs on those guys. And, I think I'll borrow from something I heard out at the Alma Conference, is when I was talking to one of our customers and he was mentioning how ... we were commenting on how the almond industry has incredibly grown and innovated over the last couple decades, and part of their attitude is that if we worked together, we all get lifted up. We take that approach too. So, we're cheering on a lot of those companies because there's plenty, plenty of problems in the beekeeping space that need to be solved by technology. There's little technology adoption in the beekeeping space and I absolutely believe that together, if we tackle those problems that we can be lifted up. 

Ellie:
While I'm mindful about how we build our moat around what we're doing and be the best and move forward in our way, I really think some of these companies are doing cool things in the space too.

Mike:
Very cool. If people would like to get ahold of you or if they would like to learn more about the Bee Corp, how can they do that? 

Ellie:
Yeah, our website is www.thebeecorp.com, and that's bee as in the honey bee, I always have to spell that out for folks. It's not the letter. And that'd probably be the best way, and then if you want to reach us, we've got emails and contact forms on that website people can fill out, and that goes directly to us and we respond to that stuff. So, that would probably be the easiest way to find us. If they want to follow us, they can search us on Twitter and LinkedIn, we're posting updates there, on Facebook as well, and that would be just a simple Google search of our name to find our links there.

Mike:
Ellie, thank you so much, I appreciate the time.

Ellie:
Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me Michael.