EPIC Startup Spotlight: FarmHelp5 min read
The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) of the American University of Armenia (AUA) is proud to introduce FarmHelp, one of the startups in the current Spring 2021 batch. FarmHelp offers a unique blend of knowledge, data, and technology-based interventions to smallholder farmers, who are impacted by extreme climate conditions and don’t have the capacity or access to technical and/or financial support. FarmHelp aims to accommodate farmers to make data-driven decisions and invest in climate-resilient agriculture.
The below interview with FarmHelp team members, Armen Asryan, Nune Sakanyan, and Tatevik Vardanyan (LL.M. ‘12), touches on their backstory, current challenges, and plans, as well as the benefits they have derived from the EPIC incubation program.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Nune Sakanyan: It started with Armen and me having coffee in downtown Yerevan. As we both have working experience in climate security issues and could see how the recent war could negatively impact food security, such as wheat supplies in Armenia, we brainstormed on how we could solve such imminent issues today, how we could help our farmers, especially the most vulnerable smallholders. We came up with the idea of establishing FarmHelp, which we later fleshed out together with Tatevik. At that time we were working with Tatevik on a different project and her knowledge and enthusiasm on the topic and being a backyard hobby farmer brought us together. As we had many ideas, we created a shared document and started working on it remotely. Armen jokes that everything starts with a shared doc.
All of this was happening while EPIC was accepting applications for the Spring 2021 Incubation Program, and Tatevik suggested applying.
We saw EPIC as a good opportunity to develop our idea in a more structured way. It is extremely helpful to hear others’ opinions and thoughts about our startup, especially those of our mentors, professionals, and experts that we met through EPIC, as well as the opinion of other entrepreneurs in this batch.
Who are your team members?
Armen Asryan: We are a team of three co-founders now.
Nune Sakanyan, CEO of FarmHelp, has a Postgraduate Studies Diploma in Environmental Management from Technical University of Dresden. Nune founded Women in Climate and Energy NGO to support sustainable development by supporting women and youth engaged in the climate and energy sectors. She has solid working experience in environmental management, sustainable energy policies, urban management, science communication, and gender issues. After the recent war, she has co-founded the HLAPPO, a US-based non-profit organization that aims to preserve historical lands and peoples for the good of the world and future generations. She is a constant source of new ideas that can change the world for the better.
Tatevik Vardanyan, COO of FarmHelp, has an LL.M. degree from AUA and has been working at the AUA’s Acopian Center for the Environment as a grants manager for the past five years. She has very strong management and operations, as well as soft skills for effective outreach and networking. Multitasking is one of her strengths combined with her ability to connect the dots from ostensibly different domains. She puts a lot of effort into what she does and brings good luck to every project.
I am a PhD candidate in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies at the University of Lisbon. I have co-founded the Aires Development Foundation in 2017 that works in multiple areas, such as space and aeronautics education for youth, innovation and technology for environmental conservation, youth action and public participation. My early experience with startups dates back to 2002 when I co-founded an Armenia-based IT outsourcing company in the field of software development and business process outsourcing. And here at FarmHelp startup I have assumed the role of CTO. Yes, and one more thing, perhaps the most important one – I am a dreamer.
What opportunities did you see that may result in making your startup a huge success?
We view the challenges that our country and the whole world are facing right now in the field of agriculture, including food security, climate change, etc., as an opportunity to create an impactful business. Our solution is a climate-smart agricultural tool that will help smallholders to make data-driven decisions, to produce more staple crops, reduce losses, spend less, and be resilient.
What are you doing today and what are your future goals?
Our solution is a climate-smart agricultural tool which can be used anywhere in the world. There are many countries with similar agricultural issues, such as India and Africa. Our goal is to grow users of our app around the world. The solutions that exist today are not accessible to smallholders in developing countries. Our uniqueness is that, together with the technical solutions, we offer financial solutions to small farm holders, joining the efforts of community members facing similar challenges and rendering climate adaptation services.
What makes this time so perfect for your startup to kick off?
Armenia is very vulnerable to climate change, and agriculture is the most affected sector. Climate change does not only mean a rise in temperature over 50 years, but it also means today’s challenges regarding the changing quality of soil, the impact of precipitation frequencies and intensities on crop growth, weather anomalies, and associated side effects on various other sectors and people. There is an urgent need for climate action and for new agricultural tools and practices. This is the perfect time for our startup to kick off.
What does success look like for your startup?
Our first big success would be when Armenian farmers actually sign up by paying the fee for use of our app. Once the proposed solutions are largely used in Armenia, we will scale up and develop our product for worldwide use. Getting into the global market will be the next success for our startups.
We also want to make an impact in the smallholders’ lives as they represent a vulnerable segment in our society. We want them to feel happy with the outcome of their efforts.
Is your startup lucrative enough for investors?
It is a business of the future. Investors mainly find and invest in those startups that have potential in the future, not in the present. Our startup will help solve food security worldwide.
What are the benefits of the EPIC incubation program?
EPIC was the right call for us at the right time. On the one hand, it gave us the opportunity to gel with one another as a team, to work on our idea on a daily basis through the sessions and tasks, and also to feel more responsible for our startup. Doing something for our startup every day has become a habit for us, we got attached to it just like the Little Prince did to his rose. Also, though we all have many years of professional experience, EPIC is helping us develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Besides guiding us through the startup process, giving us the necessary tools and opportunities to work with mentors, EPIC takes interest in our idea and for our business to be profitable.
The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) is a platform of the American University of Armenia (AUA) for promoting entrepreneurial education, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and startup venture incubation. EPIC provides an ecosystem for emerging entrepreneurs consisting of first-class facilities and collaborative workspace, programs and events, and a network of mentors, advisors, and investors. EPIC fosters the understanding and application of entrepreneurship in students and faculty at AUA to craft high-impact multidisciplinary ventures.