"You should see the boots I wear," says Steele Lorenz. "I'm so afraid of getting bit by a snake. And in India, there are a lot of snakes."
The Carlson School graduate (BSB '10) perseveres, however, putting his boots on multiple times a week to go out into the rural farm fields around Madurai, India to talk to farmers about how his start-up company, MyRain, can improve their yield and make their farm more sustainable through a cost-effective, and simply designed drip-irrigation kit.
Lorenz has been in Madurai (in southern India) since June, arriving not long after resigning from his consultant job in Minneapolis to pursue MyRain. It's a venture that started while he was in the University's Acara Institute, a course that creates student teams from the University and pairs them with non-U.S. partner school teams to solve an environmental challenge.
Lorenz joined the Institute to complement his experience in the Carlson Ventures Enterprise (CVE). In fact, it was CVE's Directors Toby Nord and Connie Rutledge who suggested Lorenz join.
"Being in the Carlson Ventures woke me up to what it's like being outside of school, so that gave me more of a national perspective of the business world," says Lorenz. "The Acara Institute pushed that even further by looking at business opportunities globally. What are the challenges and what are the true needs of people in developing nations?"
While in the Acara Institute, Lorenz's team, comprised of University of Minnesota and Indian Institue of Technology Roorkee students, were tasked with solving water security problems in India. During their investigation they came upon drip irrigation, a more efficient means of watering crops as opposed to flood irrigation which washes away soil and nutrients.
While drip-irrigation wasn't new in India, there was not a good means to distribute to and service smaller farms (1 - 10 acres). They had found their challenge to solve.
"What we really wanted to do was purchase this drip-irrigation technology and then wrap around services," says Lorenz. "So we were really focused on education, availability of the product, and being able to deliver to rural areas."
The team worked together virtually across time zones and continents, conducting usability tests, speaking with farmers, and developing a business plan.
The result was the business plan the MyRain team brought to the Acara 2010 Spring Challenge where it made it all the way to the national-level competition. MyRain didn't win, but its rise through the competition gave Lorenz confidence that the venture had promise.
From a student business plan to reality
Upon graduation, Lorenz went to work for a retail consultancy in Minneapolis but continued to develop and refine MyRain. After two years of working on MyRain at night and on weekends, Lorenz and partner Sri Latha Ganti (M.Eng. '11) had raised enough funds for Lorenz to relocate to India and put the business plan into action.
Because of the rules of foreign direct investment in India, MyRain can't sell directly to farmers, so they sell through dealers, who could be any tradesperson in the community, from a handyman to a plumber.
MyRain contracts with the dealer, trains him or her on the product and selling techniques, and the dealer in turn works to garner business. When a farmer shows interest, the dealer provides Lorenz and team field measurements from which a quote is produced. Then it's up to the dealer to close the sale and make any service calls thereafter.
"What we're doing is setting up an independent dealer network. We're really empowering these people to sell a product that may be expensive for them to hold as a retailer," says Lorenz. "So we're holding the inventory ourselves, allowing them to sell from a catalog."
Regardless of how robust MyRain's dealer network becomes, Lorenz says the message to customers will never waver.
"We say to the farmers that were a social venture. We're here to serve your needs and help you maximize your time in your field," says Lorenz. "We want to understand your challenges and be a long-term partner with you. If the small farmer wins, they are more profitable and more sustainable and we have just won a customer for life".
Lorenz was recently in the Twin Cities looking into additional products that MyRain might offer in the future. "The network we have built has lots capacity to provide solutions beyond drip irrigation," says Lorenz. "Farmers, excited by success with drip irrigation, want to know what other technologies they can adopt. Manufactures of appropriate, small-scale farm machinery are excited too. MyRain gives them an additional channel to reach a traditionally difficult customer". Lorenz expects to introduce several new products in the coming months.
"The problem we're trying to solve is really how to get new farm technology into the hands of rural farmers," he continues, "if we are right, this isn't just an India solution, this is a global solution."