The difference between having an idea and actually doing it

Hi, my name is Simon, and I am going to fix the gap between farmers and researchers in Belgium.” It sounds weird when you say it like that, but it’s something I’ve had to get used to saying after winning the IUPAC N-GAGE competition six months ago. 

My submission was about modernising crop protection (and agriculture in general) by using a tool everyone has at hand: the smartphone. The idea grew out of frustration from my PhD because the technology I am working on is complex and will need years’ worth of R&D for it to be available to farmers. I figured we could use smartphones as a short-term approach, since they are available everywhere and we can do a lot of interesting things using apps. We could even build a community for farmers and researchers, where they can interact to promote innovation and make agriculture more sustainable. Sounds like a great plan, right?

Now to put things in perspective for those who don’t know me, I am a 25-year-old PhD student who sent in his submission thinking ‘Hey, this is a good idea, someone should make it happen!’. I never actually stopped to consider that that someone might be me. My first thought was that there was no way I could do it and that I should tell them to just find someone more experienced. Luckily, the wonderful people of the IUPAC N-GAGE Programme did not just throw me into the deep end. Part of the award granted to the 5 N-GAGE winners was extensive training by a series of expert coaches, who taught us what we need to make our ideas happen. The most extensive training session involved 45 other contest candidates at the IUPAC Agri-summit in Ghent, Belgium (May 2019). We parted ways after this amazing week feeling more capable, highly motivated and only mildly terrified of starting our new projects. In the next paragraphs, I will relate my experience of the past six months by telling you about the two biggest mistakes I made. This might sound strange, but if there is anything I’ve learned from being a PhD student (and a chess player), it is that mistakes are best viewed as inevitable learning experiences. Trying hard, falling on your face and getting up to try again is what separates having an idea from actually doing it. 

First mistake. I realized I was confusing two things while writing my initial idea. I thought we could make an application that would allow people to benefit from smartphone technology to solve two problems: 1) the fragmentation of the agricultural sector and the gap between practice and academia makes innovation difficult, and 2) farm management needs be improved and made more sustainable. An example of the second point is using smartphone applications for disease detection, as my colleague Ropo is trying to do. As I started discussing the idea with anyone I could get my hands on, it became clear that I was most passionate about fixing the first problem. I truly believe that for agriculture to be sustainable, we need to work together. I was investigating the cost of building an application in the first month after the IUPAC conference when I realized innovation is not about technology, but about people. Smartphones could indeed improve farm management, but to fix the fragmentation in our sector I needed something else. I needed to convince as many people as possible that sharing knowledge and working together will not only make farming more sustainable, but is a win-win for everybody. Then, we could build as many applications as needed to fulfil the needs of our network. 

Second mistake. Building a mobile application does not cost 5000 euro. Apparently, apps are a lot like cars. They can cost anything between 5000 and 150.000 euro, depending on your expectations. Ok, no problem. The wonderful people of the IUPAC N-GAGE Programme sent us off to business summer school, where we learned a lot of new fancy jargon to deal with this situation. We can do a SWOT analysis, financial plans with balance sheets and make mock-up versions of our project to convince new investors. 

Right then, on to the first step: “Build your own business model”. Creating a community can be done in one of two ways. First, by finding a small “seed”, around which people increasingly gather as the network organically grows. This is what happens when people share a common interest (look at the YPARD community). Sadly, I didn’t have the perfect idea for a “seed” around which my network could grow. Another way to build the network is by talking to existing, smaller groups and uniting them. To do this, I needed to do a lot of networking and talk to as many people as possible. However, I didn’t want to spend 5000 euro just on networking. On the other hand, it was not enough for building a prototype app. 

I never thought I would have the problem of not knowing how to spend my seed grant. I felt like I needed to find a way to put the grant money to good use, but I was missing something. Putting the budget on hold for a while, I started talking to anyone I could to get feedback on my idea. Most people I talked to reacted surprisingly positively and confirmed they shared the idea to unite farmers and researchers. Others were more sceptical, but gave me good advice on how to improve my project plan. 

One of the biggest developments came when I pitched the project idea in front of a jury of investors at business summer school. Koen Tahon, one of the jury members, was enthusiastic and invited me to a networking event hosted by ING bank. I met a number of people I thought I’d never get the chance to meet, and we are now looking with ING to see how we can achieve plan A: unite the right groups to create a full agricultural network. I was over the moon, obviously, but I still felt like the “seed” that could organically grow a network (plan B) was right in front of me and I was missing it. I scheduled a meeting with Nathan, one of the N-GAGE coaches, and we spent a few hours untangling the mess of ideas that had grown in my mind during the past months. That’s where we picked up the idea of setting up a peer-to-peer learning platform for farmers. It was perfect. We could engage pioneering farmers who are already following academic developments, and help them teach their peers through an online environment. People often refer to my project idea as “Facebook for farmers” and now we had just come up with “Masterclass for farmers”. This newly hatched plan B finally put my mind at ease. 

Writing this blogpost, I remember the week before the IUPAC conference when Nathan told me that the N-GAGE competition, the people I would meet and the resulting opportunities would be “life-changing”. I didn’t believe him, which was perhaps my biggest mistake yet. I will now spend the next months exploring both options mentioned above and spreading the word to get as much feedback as possible. If you are still reading this, it means that by now you have thoughts, perspectives, people you could talk to, all of which can help us make the community happen.  

Thanks for reading!

Simon Appeltans

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