Crop analytics drone company Raptor Maps took the $100,000 grand prize May 13 at the 25th annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. The team of three MIT aerospace engineers developed an analytics platform that employs unmanned aircraft to pinpoint crop damage, target pesticide use, and increase yields.
For some startups, a $100,000 prize and the cachet of winning a top business plan contest can boost an idea toward acquiring capital to get up and running. For Raptor Maps, the low cost of the drones means the prize money can equip the company to begin serving paying clients almost immediately.
“The money will go to building the analytics platform for scale operations,” said Nikhil Vadhavkar, executive at Raptor Maps, and a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. “We can get three or four aircraft and establish a beachhead in the market. Because we can build so cheaply, this is exactly the boost we need.”
Raptor Maps was born far from the agricultural fields it seeks to serve. Team members were part of a NASA geological field mission last summer and determined that satellite imagery was “not cutting it. Drones can do it better,” said Vadhavkar. Satellites are too far away, he said, and the current dominant method of crop evaluation—walking—is too close to cover more than a small portion of acreage in a day.
Raptor Maps’ drones strike a useful middle ground. They can survey entire farms with high-resolution imagery, use proprietary analytics to pinpoint problem areas, such as infestations, and target chemical applications. The team hopes to increase yields in an industry anxious to both decrease chemical use due to environmental concerns and save more of the estimated one-third of crops that are lost each year to bugs and disease.
The other winners
Raptor Maps shared the $6,000 Thomson Reuters Data Prize with Quorum, an online legislative strategy tool that provides organizations with quantitative data on the United States Congress. The prize is given to the teams that best use big data.
Emerald won both the $10,000 AARP Foundation Prize and the $1,000 Audience Choice Award for its fall monitoring system for the elderly. The team wants to replace the familiar “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” pendants with a 97 percent accurate monitor that can alert family members and medical help to falls in the home.
Roughly the size of a Wi-Fi router, Emerald was developed at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and works by monitoring radio waves reflected off the body without requiring customers to wear a pendant.
Emerald’s Daniel Burseth, LGO ’15, recalled a fall that left his grandmother on the ground for 10 hours with a broken hip. With reliable fall detection, he said, fewer injuries will be exacerbated by prolonged time without medical assistance.
Competition is third in series of contests
The MIT $100K grand prize competition—dubbed Launch—is the third in the yearlong series of competitions, and the most intensive. In the fall, Pitch evaluates one-minute elevator pitches on startup concepts that may only be at the idea stage. In late winter, Accelerate steps it up with teams presenting after a process of potential customer inquiry and prototype development.
According to Jacob Auchincloss, MBA ’16, co-director of the MIT $100K, 190 teams entered online applications for Launch and 56 semifinalists were selected to receive $1,000 toward honing their business plans with a mentor. Judging whittled the field to the eight finalists who competed May 13 at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Though the final event’s presentations are polished performances with a flair for the theatrical, the real competition involves thorough and viable business plans.
Those plans become “much more polished in presentation,” Auchincloss said. “The business plan is the big deliverable [where] they’re judged on problem solving, who will pay, and having first customers. They have much more than a first prototype and they’re ready for hard questions.”
For Raptor Maps, the technology changed little, but the business plan benefitted significantly.
“The platform is serving us well,” Vadhavkar said. “The thing that changed was the connections, who to target so we can offer the most value, refining our plan.”
Governor proclaims Entrepreneurship Day in Massachusetts
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker attended the event to present a proclamation declaring May 14 Entrepreneurship Day in Massachusetts. MIT “may in fact be the single most important institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said.
“The ethos, the ecosystem, the striving for excellence, the commitment to thinking differently, the work that you do supporting each other’s dreams is very special,” he said. “It is a huge part of what makes Massachusetts great.”The MIT $100K began in 1990 with a $10,000 prize and a name to match. Thousands have participated and companies emerging from the competition today employ 4,500 people, have raised $1.6 billion in capital, and represent $12 billion in market value, organizers said.