Michael Koenig, armed with three pocket-sized field guides, spent a summer five years ago scouting Iowa corn and soybean fields, identifying and marking down where crops were fighting pests — weeds, bugs and disease.
He combed through "hundreds of pages of information," looking for the differences between, say, giant ragweed and waterhemp, then recorded it "in triplicate" using paper and carbon.
"The handwritten notes were great for making decisions that day," Koenig, 30, told The Des Moines Register. "But people didn't dig those notes out the following season, when they were making seed or chemical decisions."
Koenig's experience became the foundation for ScoutPro, a new mobile-app company that's been getting a lot of attention lately, including a mention in Gov. Terry Branstad's inaugural address this month.
Branstad said ScoutPro represented home-grown entrepreneurialism, ever-growing precision in agriculture and the high-tech industry's ongoing need for broadband infrastructure.
ScoutPro also could be a classic example of a good idea finding enough support — grants, loans, mentoring, even a borrowed truck and trailer, and a shared trade-show booth — to become a company.
Koenig said the company started with a class he wasn't initially excited about taking — entrepreneurship in agriculture at Iowa State University. It seemed unrelated to the agriculture education major the former electrician had returned to college to get.
But it was where Koenig met Stuart McCulloh and Holden Nyhus and was challenged to create a business plan for a new or existing company.
McCulloh developed a plan to create a vegetable cooperative, and Nyhus a market for locally raised livestock.
But Koenig's idea hit home with McCulloh, who also had scouted fields the same summer as Koenig, and with Nyhus, who, like the other two, grew up on farms with livestock and crops.
With help from McCulloh and Nyhus, Koenig's project won a class scholarship.
"These two came up with me afterward and said we should give the John Pappajohn business plan contest a go," Koenig said.
The three joined forces with Sudheer Pamuru, another ISU guy who provides the company's technology platform, and graphic designer Dan Noe, to put together a presentation. They ended up winning $5,000.
"If John Pappajohn is interested in the application, it might be more than a class project," Koenig said.
Since then, the men have worked around university courses, graduation and outside jobs to jump-start the company.
In 2011, the men borrowed a truck and trailer to take their company display to the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Ill. With the show sold out, Stine Seeds offered to share its booth with the students.
"We showed up in the tent with our freshly purchased polos, pitching a product people couldn't buy yet," said McCulloh, 23.
He remembers driving back to Iowa, excited about the interest. The team released its first app for agronomists in 2012, the same year Koenig graduated from ISU. McCulloh and Nyhus would follow in 2013.
"What a thrill to have someone send you a check for something you did," McCulloh said.
"Somebody else who sees the value," Koenig said.
Agronomists provided a lot of feedback on the pilot, McCulloh said, helping the company work out bugs.
The company also lets users go online to manage and share farm field data.
"You don't have to wait for a scout to get back from the field. After you create a crop scouting report, an agronomist can go online for it. It's instant," said Nyhus, 24.
Then it can be emailed to the grower to take action, he said.
The company primarily works with farm cooperatives, elevators and private agronomists from North Dakota to Ohio. But the company plans to release an app and online platform that farmers can use as well.
The business has scouting tools for corn, soybeans and wheat, but it's looking to add new states and different crops, such as sugar beets and cotton.
And it's adding weather data that can help farmers identify areas that are prone to flooding or "drowned-outs" that have to be replanted.
"A lot of what we did happened when we were full-time students," Nyhus said. "Michael was a full-time salesman and a full-time student."
The men also worked jobs outside the startup. McCulloh worked as an ISU Extension agronomist, Nyhus taught and Koenig still works with a farmer near Iowa City, testing the company's products in the field, as well as leading the company.
ScoutPro is beginning to attract financial support. Last March, the Iowa Economic Development Authority provided the company with a $240,000 loan, and Iowa Farm Bureau's Renew Rural Iowa has invested as well.
And this month, American Farm Bureau named ScoutPro entrepreneur of the year, a contest that brought $30,000 to the company.
Koenig said the company, looking to add its first employee, has a broader purpose as well.
The app enables agronomists and farmers to use global positioning to precisely locate where weeds, bugs and disease occur.
"The geo-reference I used was, 'Well, I think I'm about 12 rows in from the fence line,' " Koenig said.
ISU and Kansas State University have allowed ScoutPro to use databases of weed, bug and disease data so farmers can get good information.
That's important when farmers are working to use as little herbicide and pesticide as possible — both to prevent nutrients from leaving fields and to save money — and working to identify the spread of weed and insect resistance.
Koenig said he wants the company to look at providing information to farmers about regional trends on plant pests. Midwestern states including Iowa are concerned about weeds such as Palmer amaranth entering the state. The weed easily spreads, grows quickly and robs farmers of yields.
"It's not just about turning a buck," McCulloh said. "It's about easily getting information out there."--Donnelle Eller, The Des Moines Register