Interview with Allison Kopf, Founder and CEO of Agrilyst
Allison Kopf is the founder and CEO of Agrilyst, a software platform that aims to facilitate data-driven decision making by greenhouse and indoor farmers, thus improving the efficiency and profitability of the farms. Agrilyst helps with farm management and planning, operational data analysis, and automates complex functions like compliance. Allison was awarded Forbes 30 under 30 in 2019 for her work founding and developing Agrilyst.
Business Today (Grace Kortum): What inspired you to start Agrilyst? How did your past career experience encourage you to become an entrepreneur and to work in agriculture?
Allison Kopf: I started Agrilyst after working with one of the largest venture-backed indoor agriculture companies in the US. I was running operations for them and I kept becoming more and more frustrated that we didn’t have the tools in our industry to help us grow and succeed. Greenhouse operations are consistently at risk all the time: if your lights go out for a few hours, your plants can die. If pumps clog your plants can die. If you have a pathogen and can’t detect it, you put the end consumer at risk. If there’s a labor shortage and you can’t harvest your crops, you lose revenue. All of these things are happening on a regular basis for farm operators. I became obsessed with solving this risk problem: finding a way to reduce the risk of running a farming business so growers can increase their profitability and scale up their operations. That’s how Agrilyst was born.
BT: A lot of our readers are current college students. I read that you studied physics in college. How has your background in science and undergraduate experience as a whole contributed to your career path and your decision to pursue business and also agriculture?
AK: Physics teaches you how to solve problems and test things continuously, and that’s critical to running a startup. You have to constantly look at what you’re doing and question: “Is this the right product?,” “Are we solving real problems for our customers?,” and “What is next?” I am a naturally curious person so physics was a good fit for me. When I become obsessed with a problem I have to find a way to solve it, and that naturally led me into the startup world. I’ll also say that while I was an undergrad, one of the things I had the opportunity to do (I believe a lot in experiential learning) was to work on a two-year project where you raise capital to design and build a solar-powered, fully functional house. And that project, for me, was complementary to a science-based education where I could apply what you learn in the classroom in the field; you learn how to lead a team, raise capital, and learn how to take a project from start to completion. If you couple an education in science with something applied, you get this nice, well-rounded viewpoint on how to look at problems and solve things in a different way, and that lends itself really nicely to startups.
BT: What are some of your long-term goals for the company, and do you think that this technology could be applied to more than just indoor farms in the future? Do you think Agrilyst and similar technological developments might be used to combat global problems such as land use and food insecurity?
AK: We are all about risk management, and our goal for growers is to make things virtually risk-free. You should not have to question what you need to plant, how much you should charge per product, where you are selling, or how you are managing labor. These are things that can and should be automated and managed with technology. When I think about food insecurity, I like to imagine a world where growers are free to do what they do best, which is grow food. In turn, that will enable a more profitable, more sustainable, more safe supply chain. So that’s how we think about it. We are really focused on the supply chain itself and how to make improvements within that. If we can tackle these things now, things like global food insecurity won’t be as big of an issue as they are today.
BT: I know you recently decided to expand into the cannabis industry. Why did you decide to expand into that market and how has it been different from the rest of the work you have been doing?
AK: The cannabis industry has been really interesting, mostly because of how fast it has been growing. This is an entire industry being built from the ground up, so when you look at our core objective, which is creating a risk-free agricultural supply chain, and consider this industry being built from the ground up, it is a great place to bring our platform. When you’re creating a new industry, legal cannabis, from scratch it’s really hard for operations: production is inconsistent, regulations are constantly changing, and market dynamics are just being established, so having a product that brings consistency to an industry like this is really valuable.
BT: What have been some of the things that have surprised you the most in starting a company? What have been the greatest challenges you never anticipated in your previous job or as a student contemplating your future career?
AK: There are so many challenges. From raising capital, to getting your first hundred customers, to supporting those customers, to scaling your team, it’s pretty challenging and challenges consistently change as your company evolves. Right now, we are hiring for a lot of positions and it’s hard to hire a lot of great people quickly. I’m always surprised at how excited people are by the agriculture industry. This is a field that was not sexy ten years ago, when I started working in it, but now there are so many people that are excited about it, and part of that is how many new jobs have been created in the space. You can study computer engineering or robotics or have a career in consulting and work in this industry.
BT: Do you have any recommendations for student readers why may be interested in pursuing careers agriculture or just entrepreneurship in general?
AK: Reach out to companies early on. Two of our employees started out as interns with us and we have hired a few folks right out of college. I also recommend working while in school to get some experience in the field you might want to pursue. Someone who has already built an app or worked for a tech company will be more interesting to me than an applicant who just graduated with no practical experience. It shows that you are passionate and curious about the field. Certainly, you don’t need agricultural experience, but if you are interested in agriculture go visit a farm especially if you’ve never spent time on one. It will show companies that you really want to be in the space and help you understand what is really going on. “What are some of the challenges?” “What are we trying to solve?” “What companies are solving those problems or maybe not addressing the problem?” Also figure out if you are looking for an early stage, later stage, or established company to work for because there are differences amongst them. Early stage companies are great for voracious self-learners because you have to jump in and teach yourself everything. They aren’t so great if you want a good backbone of training and a lot of support and mentorship. Figuring out what’s right for you and targeting your search is something a lot of folks don’t necessarily do right away. Lastly, we are actively hiring for a lot of positions right now so folks can definitely reach out to us!