When he graduated in 2009, Iowa State University electrical engineering alumnus Austin Lyons didn’t imagine that just three years later he would be on the verge of starting his own company with four of his closest friends.
The group, which consists of Lyons, Eduardo Torrealba, Trevor Hutchins, Brad Sanders, and Michael Clemenson, met at a local church while attending graduate school at the University of Illinois. Inspired by personal experiences, the five colleagues formed a company called Oso Simple Technologies, based on a soil moisture monitor that simplifies the art of gardening.
The idea for the sensor, which monitors and provides details about the environment of plants and other vegetation, came to Torrealba when he and his wife were having troubles keeping their indoor plants alive. Unsure of the amount of water their plants needed, Torrealba purchased a sensor to track the amount of moisture in the plant’s soil.
“You can find moisture sensors at Home Depot fairly cheap, but most people don’t know what specific soil moisture content their plants need,” explains Lyons. “Finding this data and referencing it every time you check on your garden is a lot of work. It’s also a passive system—it doesn’t notify you when your plants need watering.”
To make gardening easier, Torrealba created a computer-connected system for his houseplant with a soil sensor that took moisture measurements and relayed the information to his computer. A program he wrote displayed the measurement and told him if he should water or not. When he presented the idea to his friends, the group was instantly enthused and began tossing out ideas to improve the system.
After revisions, the solar-powered system can now communicate over WiFi and work with multiple sensors, enabling users to simultaneously monitor the health of several different plants. Soil moisture readings are uploaded to Oso’s website, where users can log in and see if they are over or under-watering each plant.
“Our system makes gardening easy. All you have to do is put some sensors in the ground and log in to our website to tell us what type of plants you are monitoring,” Lyons says. “We’ll check on your plants for you, and when you log in to our website we’ll tell you if you need to water or not. If you’d like, we’ll even email you when your plants are thirsty.”
Additional functionality will allow users to link Oso to social media sites such as Facebook, sharing their garden information in a real-world version of the popular game Farmville.
In addition to his full time job at Intel in Austin, Texas, Lyons has been working extra hours to develop Oso’s web applications, communicating with his team members via video chat. He continues to add functionality to the site while Hutchins, Sanders, and Clemenson work on improving the soil moisture monitoring system, and Torrealba tracks down investors.
Although Lyons never envisioned his career taking a turn like this, he says his experience at Iowa State prepared him for the opportunity. The time he spent as an undergraduate research assistant under Arun Somani, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Alan Goldman, distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, as well as his senior design project, taught him important lessons he sees working within his new company.
“During senior design, we had to develop a solution that was useful for the customer and consider tradeoffs when coming up with a design,” says Lyons. “At Oso, we think the same way—what will the customers want and how much will they pay for it.”
Under Somani and Goldman’s guidance, Lyons says he learned how to identify a problem, understand its constraints, and create a solution. He also learned how to overcome obstacles, and how to take alternative paths to the same destination.
While excited about the product’s potential, Lyons and his colleagues have found their biggest challenges involve the business aspects of their company, such as attracting investors.
“There is a lot of skepticism among potential investors because we are young engineers, and although the product and technology is cool, we have very little business and
marketing experience,” he explains. “To overcome that skepticism, we are trying to align ourselves with people who can give us the advice we need, which is why we brought on start-up veteran Tim Hoerr as our chief financial officer to help us navigate the waters of running our own company.”
Hoerr and Torrelba, who serves as chief executive officer, are hard at work presenting their soil moisture monitor to angel investors in hopes of receiving funds to mass-produce their product in exchange for an ownership stake in Oso. They currently have an official investment from Serra Capital, a Champaign, Illinois, company in which Hoerr is the managing partner, and are in discussions with several other investors.
“We are closing in on the total amount of money we need to raise but are still open to talking with other potential investors who are interested in our team, our mission, and our product. Our investors are excited—they see our company as an opportunity to make a good return on their investment.” Lyons says.
With funds lined up, the group is now looking at completing the company’s short-term and long-term goals. The next step in product integration will be getting feedback from a control group.
“Initially, we want to get this product in the hands of 20 or so people, especially people with gardening experience who can helps us iron out all the kinks and give us feedback on user-friendliness,” says Lyons. “From there, we want to get this product manufactured and on shelves within the next year, which entails working with a manufacturer to improve our design so the product can be manufactured on a large scale.”
Once Oso’s soil moisture monitor is on the market and the popularity heightens, the group will begin to look at some of their long-term goals to determine if they are feasible. Lyons most looks forward to the possibility of a mobile website allowing users to check the status of their plants at any given time.
One of their possible investors has already begun pitching ideas to expand the technology of the soil moisture monitor to offer it as a means for lawn irrigation or even agricultural irrigation with the option of an automatic watering system.
“We don’t ask our investors to take on anything, but this particular investor is very interested in coming to our meetings to advise us on how to expand the product and help connect us with contacts in his field,” explains Lyons.
In the future, Oso would like to expand its soil moisture monitor with features that will ultimately have a social impact on the world. They see possibilities for conserving water and preventing water waste created by timed sprinkler systems and overwatering. Team members have shown a passion for engineering in developing countries and several have been to Africa to help build windmills, wells, and water systems.
“A big aspect of our company is that we are adamant about giving back to society by not only making gardening easier, but also conserving water and giving back to the people who are in need of water,” says Lyons. “We want to partner with organizations like water.org to donate a percentage of our profits.”
Oso hopes to have a functioning product on shelves later this year priced at around $50. Anyone interested in reading more about Oso, or to sign up for e-mail alerts tracking the company’s progress, can visit their website.