Turning Green into Gold
Little did Eduardo Torrealba know that a going away present from his in-laws during his move from Waco to Illinois would be the thing that added a little spice to his life.
A basil plant that wouldn't grow sparked an idea in the mind of Edward Torrealba (BSME ‘11), leading him to develop a program that told him when to water. "I do not have a green thumb," said Torrealba. "I needed something like this to help me keep my plants alive."
After doing a little research to learn what options existed, Torrealba discovered a product that would tell him when to water but didn't take into account the type of plant and the soil type. The only other comparable tool was an industrial system that was cost prohibitive.
"I thought to myself, ‘I'm probably not the only person out there with this problem,'" he said. It was October 2011 when Torrealba approached his business partners about beginning to develop an idea for a new product.
Four Bears Plus One
At a small-group Bible study, Torrealba connected with three other Baylor engineering graduates and an Iowa State graduate. They all were studying for their master's at the University of Illinois. The four engineering grad students formed Oso Technologies and began their journey.
"The strongest part of the company is the team," said co-founder and Baylor graduate Trevor Hutchins (BSECE ‘09). "I knew that I wanted to be an innovator of some sort. This really allows for a great opportunity to begin that."
Oso Technologies' Plant Link uses sensors that are placed outside in a garden or inside in a houseplant. The sensors communicate wirelessly to a base station, with a reach of up to 100 meters. The base station works through a homeowner's Wi-Fi router and talks directly to the Internet. Hutchins said the value of the product is in the website where the intelligence is stored.
The company takes information about plants that is available to the public and integrates it into their database, which then provides watering information on thousands of plants.
Each of the team members has a specific responsibility. Hutchins said he invests between 10 and 20 hours each week on Oso, in addition to his studies and job as a research assistant. The group has virtual meetings weekly to hold each other accountable and to connect with two of the team members who now live out of state.
Michael Clemenson (BSME ‘10), another co-founder and Baylor graduate, said, "This opportunity provides all of us with valuable experience in both entrepreneurship and engineering while impacting others in a tangible way. It's not every day you get to do that while working alongside some of your closest friends."
Oso – the Spanish word for bear – was originally a play on words for the Baylor Bears, said Torrealba. The group likes the name because it's not specific about what the company does and allows them to be flexible, should they choose to develop future projects.
"I never thought I'd be able to launch a company like Oso this early in my career," said Torrealba.
Angels Among Us
Securing funding is no easy task for most startups, but in this case, Hutchins said things seemed to fall into place. "It's all happening so fast. None of us had much time to be scared," he said. "We really felt like we had an important problem to solve, and we feel like we have a good solution for it."
When the company began, Torrealba said, "I made a spreadsheet and projected possible sales over the next three years, based on market research and the potential number of customers." He determined the amount of funding needed to purchase the hardware and sustain the company. To date, the company has about four different investors.
One of those investors came through the Baylor Angel Network. Members of the BAN must meet the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's definition of an accredited investor. The BAN is set up a bit like the television show Shark Tank, where ideas are evaluated and investors provide funding, only with a little less dramatization.
Baylor business seniors get experience evaluating real companies for the Angels to consider for investment potential. Entrepreneurs are able to get connected with early stage funding.
Kevin Castello, Executive Director of the Baylor Angel Network, said that several things about Oso Technologies stood out to him. "You have a very smart founder team. They worked well together. They were able to communicate what they were looking to accomplish," he said. "They've got a cogent business plan and, at the same time, they've got backing from another (source)." A venture capital firm in Illinois, Serra Ventures, was already investing and providing guidance for Oso.
Oso will use the initial seed money for research and development. At this stage, Hutchins said, it means researching electronic components, testing them, writing code and interfacing it with the website. "Initially you start out with more expensive prototyping hardware, and you slowly refine it down to the basics of what you need."
The company is just over a year old, and investors appreciate how fast they've been able to move, said Hutchins.
"For the Angel investor, they put that money in now, anticipating that in several years when this company sells, they obviously own a piece of the company; therefore, they get a piece of the sales price," said Castello.
With that profit margin, members of the BAN are then asked to make a donation back to the Hankamer School of Business. For the startup itself, there is no requirement to make a contribution.
Making a Social Impact
Oso hopes to one day take their product overseas to help with water resource management.
"I think back to the verse in Matthew where Jesus tells us to do things for the least of these in that we're doing those things for Him," said Torrealba. "I think that as Christians we all have different callings in our lives to serve the kingdom in some way."
Brian Thomas, Senior Lecturer and Assistant Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said a summer trip to Honduras to install a hydroelectric generator helped shape Torrealba's world view, "Seeds were planted, and their way of thinking was informed and colored by that experience."
Torrealba added, "That was absolutely foundational in the way that I thought about approaching this problem and trying to build up this company over the past several months." He explained, "All the different experiences I had where I saw people with businesses that had an engineering goal, a business goal, and they had a social impact, those things really made me want to do something like that someday."
Thomas said that encouraging students to make sure engineering is their calling is a focus of the curriculum early on. "We are making the assumption you will be happiest, and you will be most fulfilled when you are doing the thing that God has made you and called you to do," said Thomas.
In Africa, Thomas worked on a water purification and delivery system with Brad Sanders (BSME ‘10), another co-founder. Sanders said of Thomas, "He is the one who really opened my eyes to the fact that God can use engineers to directly affect people's lives for the glory of Christ."
The Next Steps
Oso currently has about 10 products in the homes of customers who signed up on their website to beta test the technology. They anticipate their product will be on shelves by spring 2013. While the final cost to consumers is still being determined, Hutchins estimates it will be around $99 for the base station and three to four sensors.
The first step is to get the Oso name well known in home gardening. The second is to expand into lawn irrigation and water conservation for small farms. "Having an irrigation system that is intelligent, that can water specific areas depending on how moist that soil is, can really save you a ton of money on your water bill," said Hutchins, who anticipates the system would ultimately pay for itself in savings.
Reflecting on what has made the company so successful so quickly, Torrealba said, it's the people he's surrounded by, from investors who provide insight, to his partners. "(We) have all been able to take off and run with different segments of the product. I think that the sum of those different people together is a lot bigger than the individual contributions."
Torrealba said that giving people the tools they really need to help their gardens grow has a lot of exciting possibilities. "This is the area I'm passionate about, I'm skilled in and that I think I can really have an impact in."