2023 Most Disruptive Business School Startups: Nirby, Wharton School


Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania)

Industry: Agriculture

Founding Student Name(s): Piotr Lazarek

Brief Description of Solution: Traditional laboratory soil testing, being costly, labor-intensive, and time-consuming, deters farmers from performing regular preventative tests. Nirby introduces a game-changing solution. By leveraging high-resolution satellite imagery and a proprietary drone system, we’ve reduced soil analysis time from several weeks to mere minutes. Our sophisticated system maps out farmland productivity zones and executes comprehensive, multi-layered soil spectroscopy measurements. This allows for swift, yet thorough analysis of soil health. Armed with our precise, data-driven recommendations, farmers are equipped to optimize fertilizer consumption and increase crop yields.

Funding Dollars: Nirby has successfully secured substantial financial backing, with contributions totaling $70,000 from the Polish National Centre for Research and Development, $8,000 from the Wharton Innovation Fund, and $9,000 from the M&T Innovation Fund. This collective infusion of $87,000 in funding underscores the confidence these institutions have in Nirby’s potential to revolutionize agricultural practices through innovative technology.

What led you to launch this venture? The issue of soil degradation and its implications on agriculture is a profound one, with real-world consequences that I personally encountered during a chemistry class six years ago. It was then that I was introduced to the story of Mark, a local farmer. Mark suffered a devastating crop failure due to an elevated concentration of aluminum ions in his soil. This setback, which had severe financial implications for Mark, could have been entirely preventable. A simple preventative soil test would have identified the issue, allowing Mark to take corrective measures. However, Mark, like many other farmers, was deterred from such testing. The reason? Conventional soil testing is a daunting process. It’s not only time-consuming and labor-intensive but also comes with a hefty price tag. This narrative of Mark is not an isolated incident, but rather a reflection of a broader systemic issue in agriculture.

At the time I learned about Mark’s struggle and the broader challenge of soil degradation, many of my peers were deeply invested in the design of a Mars rover, an endeavor that, while exciting, felt distant from the pressing needs I saw in my community. I also wanted to develop space technologies, but ones that could be applied right here on Earth – specifically, on the farmlands that feed our world. This pivotal moment led to the birth of Nirby, a venture aimed at transforming the high-tech tools of space science into practical solutions for agriculture, providing farmers with the means to safeguard and nurture their soil for sustainable productivity.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? The most significant accomplishment of our venture so far has been the establishment of a twelve-member team composed of specialists in business development, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, web development, software engineering, UI/UX design, and chemical analysis. This team’s diverse skill set has been instrumental in developing innovative agricultural technologies. With the recent addition of two esteemed academics in engineering and agriculture, we have fortified our expertise, setting a robust foundation for future growth and success in serving the agricultural sector.

How has your business-related major helped you further this startup venture? Before my immersion into the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, I was an engineer at heart, captivated by the elegance of algorithms and the certainty of engineering principles. My philosophy was simple: build a great product, and success will follow. This belief was rooted in the assumption that the merit of a well-crafted engineering solution was self-evident and enough to attract customers.

However, the business major broadened my horizon beyond the confines of engineering. It taught me that while the beauty of a well-designed system is undeniable, the business side of things requires just as much finesse and precision. The program peeled back the layers of business operations, marketing strategies, and financial complexities that are vital for a product to succeed in the marketplace.

Incorporating these lessons, I learned to align our engineering milestones with business objectives, understanding that a great product needs to be met with great strategy. Now, I approach our startup with a dual mindset: the precision of an engineer and the acumen of a business strategist. This blend is what now guides our venture, ensuring that our innovations are not only technically sound but also commercially viable and customer-centric.

Which business class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? The Negotiations class stands out as a transformative experience in my educational journey, reshaping my understanding of interpersonal dynamics within the business world. Prior to this, I had viewed negotiations as battles to be won, but the class revealed the nuanced dance they truly are – not zero-sum games but opportunities for collaboration and mutual benefit.

Through this course, I learned the power of active listening, of peeling back the layers of conversation to uncover the underlying interests that drive people. It taught me that the heart of negotiation isn’t in the relentless pursuit of one’s own interests, but in the delicate balance of give-and-take, forging agreements that serve all parties well.

This newfound perspective was life-changing. It transcended the confines of the classroom and became the cornerstone of my approach to business relations. The ability to listen deeply has allowed me to build partnerships based on trust and shared vision, to connect with stakeholders at a level that goes beyond mere transactional interactions.

The biggest lesson I gained was that maintaining good relationships is as crucial as closing a deal. It’s about creating a network of allies, supporters, and collaborators. This class didn’t just equip me with strategies; it instilled a philosophy of empathy, understanding, and respect in negotiations that has been pivotal in partnering with incredible people and organizations, ultimately fueling the growth and success of our startup.

What business professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Professor Gad Allon was instrumental during the critical early stages of our startup’s journey. Over an intensive summer mentorship, he meticulously evaluated our business model, identifying strengths to capitalize on and potential pitfalls to avoid. His guidance was pivotal in shaping our initial go-to-market strategy, ensuring that it wasn’t just theoretically sound but tailored to the realities of the agricultural tech landscape.

Beyond the initial market entry, Professor Allon’s insights into scaling strategies were invaluable. He challenged me to think big, to envision the venture’s growth not as a straight line but as a series of calculated steps, each building on the last. His emphasis on prioritizing long-term value over short-term gains has informed every strategic decision we’ve made since.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? The story of William Kamkwamba, the Malawian innovator who “harnessed the wind” to empower his community, has been a beacon of inspiration on my entrepreneurial path. As a teenager, Kamkwamba built a windmill from scrap materials to provide electricity to his village, demonstrating that innovation doesn’t wait for perfect conditions—it creates them.

His journey resonated with me deeply. Here was a person who observed a pressing need and, against all odds, dedicated himself to crafting a solution. It wasn’t just the engineering feat that struck me; it was his unwavering commitment to bettering the lives of those around him. His resourcefulness and resilience in the face of scarcity and skepticism showed me that meaningful change often begins with a single, determined individual.

Kamkwamba’s story is a testament to the power of problem-solving through engineering. In founding my startup, I’ve aimed to embody that same spirit—to look at the challenges faced by farmers with soil degradation and see not just an issue, but an opportunity for innovation. His life proved that with the right blend of creativity, tenacity, and technical skill, you can forge a tool from the trials and alter the landscape of your community. It’s this philosophy of practical, impactful engineering solutions that has been the cornerstone of our venture from day one.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Our long-term goal is not just ambitious; it’s transformative. We’re setting our sights on revolutionizing the agricultural landscape, beginning with Poland as our proving ground. Once we’ve validated our product there, our vision is to redefine the global standards of soil testing, to offer an intuitive system that would allow comprehensive soil analysis to be performed with the same ease as ordering a book online.

We’re not content with incremental improvements; we aspire to digitize global farmland data, ushering in a new era of agricultural production that’s optimized not just for yield, but for sustainability and environmental stewardship. Our goal is to build an interconnected network of data that informs smarter farming decisions and maximizes efficiency.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Our venture’s development and success have been significantly influenced by the robust startup ecosystems we are a part of. The University of Pennsylvania’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been instrumental from the inception of our idea. With resources from the Venture Lab, we’ve had access to rich mentoring opportunities and crucial non-dilutive grant funding which enabled us to develop our MVP.

Simultaneously, the Polish startup ecosystem has played a critical role. Being selected to join the National Centre for Research and Development Accelerator, earmarked for Poland’s most innovative startups, came with substantial funding and mentorship. This backing has not only fueled our financial resources but has also connected us with people who are currently actively involved in refining our business model and strategy.

In addition, my involvement with the Sigma Squared society, particularly its strong Polish chapter, has opened doors to an unparalleled network of accomplished startup founders. This network provides a wealth of knowledge and support for virtually any business challenge we may encounter, fostering a community of peers who share a common passion and commitment to mutual support.


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