Entrepreneurial Iowa State University Ag Student Creates Mobile Apps to “Scout” for Crop Threats
August 20, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
ScoutPro Founder Michael Koenig has taken the traditional concept of scouting for weeds, pests, diseases and disorders in fields and has given it a forward-thinking, tech-savvy spin.
Koenig and four other co-owners of the company are offering growers, agriculture cooperatives, consultants and seed salesmen a smart-device application that takes much of the guesswork out of what is called crop scouting. Koenig, an Iowa State University student who thought up the concept while taking an agricultural entrepreneurship class, says the app allows its users to more precisely identify crop threats and determine the appropriate management. That, in turn, can lead to lower chemical usage and cost savings for some, he said.
Koenig, who runs his business out of Ames, Iowa, recalls being a crop scouting intern in the summer of 2010 when he would walk the fields with about 300 pages of guidebooks to serve as a reference for spotting crop problems. Not long after that, he started planning a way to bring that process up to speed with modern technology.
“With the app, you don’t have to carry the clipboard with the carbon copy,” Koenig said. “You don’t have to have your books. Everything’s right on your iPad. You just start pressing through the keys and it automatically starts generating reports.”
ScoutPro’s products currently include the ScoutPro Soybean app and ScoutPro Corn app, and “Consultant” versions for each of those. They are currently available for iPads. Koenig said the company is in the process of releasing the apps for Android tablet devices. The plan is to have iPhone-versions available by the end of this month.
Scouting and Management
ScoutPro takes its users through a step-by-step scouting process. For example, a grower or scouter using one of the apps would take a tablet onto the field and approach a weed. He would click on the “weeds” tab and start selecting from various options until he could narrow down the exact weed type. In the process, he might choose from selections that detail things such as the leaves’ shapes and their location on the stems. After identifying the weed using the app’s database, the user could then get a full-screen image of the weed type. He could also map field locations, take photos of his weeds, make additional notes and generate reports. The process works the same way for pests, diseases and disorders, Koenig says.
Users could next send those reports to their consultants or co-ops for determining the appropriate course of action. With the help of ScoutPro’s web service (which requires an additional annual subscription beyond the app’s cost), users are able to track previous seasons’ reports. This is where the management aspect comes in, along with the potential of reducing chemical use, Koenig said.
“Either you’re making timely application (of chemicals) to keep that yield where it used to be, or maybe you’re keeping yourself from applying needlessly,” he said. “If I’m out there and I think I’ve got a certain beetle, but then I realize it’s actually beneficial … then you start thinking ‘Okay, maybe I wait to apply’” or decide not to apply altogether, Koenig said.
Luke Lightfoot, the agriculture technology director of the grower co-op Co-Alliance, LLC based in Avon, Ind., said he has seen how ScoutPro can help reduce excessive chemical spraying. This year was dry, leading to more spider mites attacking the co-op’s soybeans, he said.
“One thing we use the app for is to be able to diagnose the fields where the spider mites were bad enough where we need to go in with an application of insecticide,” Lightfoot said. “(With the app), we can document issues and recommend a treatment of a particular field or a field area instead of a broad application clear across all the growers’ fields.”
Co-Alliance is using the app as part of ScoutPro’s pilot project. Co-Alliance includes growers in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, Lightfoot said.
The ScoutPro concept originated from a classroom project. Koenig, who grew up on a farm, returned to school at age 25. He graduates this fall from Iowa State University, where he studies agricultural education. Fulfilling a requirement in his major, Koenig took an agricultural entrepreneurship class in the fall of 2010.
For the final, the students were required to develop their own business plans. The assignment became a contest, with a scholarship serving as the prize. Koenig’s idea was not exactly what his business is today, but something similar. He wanted to create a crop scouting app that could identify weeds, pests, disease and disorders with a mere photo, or in other words, a photo recognition tool. (He later discovered that the necessary technology was not yet available.)
Koenig’s idea ended up being one of the contest’s three winners. He next joined the Pappajohn New Venture Student Business Plan Competition, competing against other student teams from across the state of Iowa in the spring of 2011. By then, he had put together a small team, which created screen shots of how the app would work. The team won $5,000 in seed grant money, Koenig said.
Koenig kept taking the business idea to the next level. The ScoutPro team, together with Iowa State University, received a $25,000 grant for research and development from the Iowa Soybean Association. (The university provides the app’s dichotomy guides, which are used for identifying the crop threats. The app’s price of $29.99 helps pay licensing fees to the university, Koenig said.) By the fall of 2011, the ScoutPro team developed an app and presented it at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa. The soybean and corn apps were launched this year in March, and their soybean and corn consultant app versions in April.
The company has nearly 40 organizations (including independent consultants, consultant groups, co-ops and seed salesmen) using its apps through a pilot program, along with about 600 additional users who are growers, Koenig said. The consultants-only apps and services allow consultants to aggregate multiple users, growers and fields.
Kevin Kimle, director of the university’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative and instructor of the class that launched Koenig’s business plan, says the student has become a sort of “poster boy” for the entrepreneurship program.
“Michael’s (Koenig’s) ability as an entrepreneur stood out—(specifically) his ability to form up a business concept and sort of intuitively understand how to move that concept forward,” Kimle said. “It’s a very interesting and unique space in the market.”
Kimle said there’s a lot going on in what he calls the “agricultural GPS space,” which ranges from auto steering on tractors to precision fertilization. He noted that this space has been developing over the past 10 to 15 years but has accelerated over the past three to five years.
“All of a sudden in agriculture, we have the ability to capture and utilize more data,” he said. “It falls in line with the whole information-at-you-fingertips movement as well.”
ScoutPro currently has five owners: Koenig, Holden Nyhus and Stuart McCulloh (two former classmates from Koenig’s entrepreneurship class), and Dan Noe and Sudheer Pamuru.
Koenig said the team is working on adding some new features for next season, which include chemical recommendations in ScoutPro’s web service and shapefile capabilities in the app allow mapping down to more exact GPS coordinates, Koenig said. He noted that his team is also working to create apps for additional crops for next season.
ScoutPro mainly makes its money through annual renewals for its web service, as opposed to actual app sales. The web service provides additional record keeping capabilities and added-value features. It costs $120 per year for growers, and the cost is variable for consultants.