How this aquafarming startup evolved from a stand-alone technology to a market-ready product
In this post, Bariflo Labs co-founder Mrutyunjay Sahu shares his experience moving from academia to the startup world.
Mrutyunjay Sahu is one of the co-founders of Bariflo Labs, an aquafarming company that uses robotics, AI and data analytics for water management in the aquaculture sector. Sahu’s background and interest has always been in water resources. In fact, he spent much of his early career in academia and had been studying the water sector since his undergraduate years. In India, as in many countries across the world, groundwater levels have been depleting rapidly and at unsustainable levels for the future. “Nobody took care of our water resources,” Sahu explains. “What has happened down the line is that a huge amount of water is being drained, the soil moisture is eroding faster leading to desertification. All major cities across the globe are water-stressed, as well as in the villages, where all the farmers are pumping water from the ground.” The challenge is finding a way to show value in the water.
This is how Sahu ended up building a venture in the aquaculture sector to create dependency on water reserves. After extensive research with NGOs and institutional bodies in the water sector, he realized that the key was to develop profitable methods of sustaining water resources. However, moving from academia to the for-profit sector was a jarring culture shift.
“There is a huge gap between real science and science on the ground. Your technology counts for 5-10%. How you’re commercializing is an entirely different ballgame, so to say. The key is scalability.”
This was a hard-learned lesson for Sahu, whose biggest crisis came early on when he realized he had spent all of his money on building the perfect prototype of intelligent robotic aeration and monitoring system for sediment aeration. “Our prototype was too costly, and I had completely dumped all my money into that and then realized it wasn’t going to work out within the Indian farming context because of the high cost of equipment, maintenance and transport cost. Nobody was going to pay anything for it – the market was not adopting it.”
Rather than become discouraged, Sahu took this experience and grew from it. “That was a learning moment. I was very sad at that moment…then I realized, I have to learn, it is not the end of the world.” With luck, the company’s first grant came in, and it was enough to get Bariflo Labs through the next year. “The key was not developing the technology, but understanding if this technology is going to work for people. I got the point, and started moving around the country, understanding other spaces, farmer conditions, and THEN I started building the product.”
Manush Labs was critical in helping Sahu develop an understanding of the broader picture, something he said was not common in the academic world, where the focus is on depth, not breadth, of expertise. The accelerator connected Bariflo Labs with members of the global population, stakeholders, and investors, and helped him understand that even if water resource management is a critical problem, it is a problem not fully understood by the majority of the world – and in particular the company's target client base. Finding a common solution that addresses all stakeholders’ needs would be a key component to solving the challenge.
The other challenge for Sahu in switching from academia to the corporate world was moving from an environment where one is always deepening one’s knowledge and level of expertise, to a state of constant learning, trial, and error.
“At a startup, you may be a master somewhere, but then have to go start again. You have to learn from scratch and build again, and do that same process again and again and again.”
Sahu himself came in with an expertise in fluid mechanics, but was less familiar with some of the technology and integration of the electronics, AI, and robotics which would track the water quality where the shrimp live, feed, and are harvested. “Most of the things I had to sit down, read the basics, work with the people, and learn from them.”
This also had an influence on how Sahu thinks about hiring. The key to hiring good employees, he says, is curiosity. Even if you hire someone who doesn’t have an existing skill, they need to have the urge to learn. “If they have that urge to learn,” he says, “they learn faster. The person who is skilled can often stay in an overconfident way. I have worked with many people who are very humble with a modest background who didn’t carry any specific skill when they started, but they have the same amount of energy that I have about this field. Given time and opportunity, they have done really wonderful work. I try to find these people.” Equally important, given the number of iterations that early-stage ventures go through, is finding people who can question the existing way of thinking and think through new solutions.
In terms of growing a startup, Sahu tends to think of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. (Spoiler alert! – “The tortoise wins,” Sahu says.) After his initial prototype, he and his team have slowly and consistently built solutions that work for the farmers that make up the client base for Bariflo Labs’s aquafarming and waterbody management system. This they do by rigorously testing pilots with customers who share valuable feedback that can be incorporated into future iterations, rather than rushing to push their own ideal solution on customers. They have also realized that farmer trust is an enormous part of the equation, and that to truly scale Bariflo Labs will have to work with the government or go through other networks that farmers trust. It is a process not without frustration, but Sahu keeps his focus on the future. “When something is not working out, I try to travel somewhere like remote places. Where farmers – where I can see again that these people are here struggling as well. That is part of life. I learn quickly, and see that again.
"If something is going wrong – I don’t divert myself, I try to not lose focus and understand and learn more.”
At the end of the day, building a startup requires a tolerance for risk-taking. To Sahu and his team, the risks they are taking could hold the key to some of the best ways to solve the challenges that they have seen arise in their lifetimes. “If you see a picture of a city, or a metropolis, without a water body, it seems incomplete. In most countries in Southeast Asia, none of these water bodies exist anymore.” Sahu and his team at Bariflo Labs are convinced that there is a narrow but valuable market opportunity in the space they are in, which if executed successfully, could create huge revenue for the company and the country, in addition to growing a market industry that could have vast impact across the globe.