March 14, 2016

WG INNOVATION CENTER: HeavyConnect Builds Technology Out of Farming

It all started with a “How to Start a Business in 6 Weeks” course.  After supporting product design development and deployment for different farm equipment manufacturers for more than a decade, Patrick Zelaya started to notice a trend. “Technologies that were being developed for the equipment weren’t solving major operational challenges for farmers,” he said.

It was at that moment that Zelaya knew he wanted to launch some type of business that would create tools to simplify field operations. In 2015, he learned about the Steinbeck Innovation FastTrac® NewVenture™ Program, which taught budding entrepreneurs how to start a business in just six weeks.  The course allowed participants to explore entrepreneurship by helping them build an actionable business plan, network with successful entrepreneurs and develop a working knowledge of business fundamentals such as marketing, product/service development, management and financials.

“When I started the course, I didn’t have an idea for a business yet,” said Zelaya. “Our instructor, John Duhring, asked us to share our ideas, and the first thing that came to my mind was a mobile app that prevented tractor failures rather than reporting them.  The whole concept for HeavyConnect really came about in five minutes.”

As he started to build the company, Zelaya’s focus was on driving the agriculture technology (agtech) movement to a model that focused on saving growers’ time—rather than focusing on higher profits and higher yields.  His extensive career with John Deere helped him understand that farming is a 14-hour day, 7-days a week type of job.  He knew that the biggest challenge for successful growers is freeing up their time.

Zelaya started to realize that what growers were hearing from tech companies was that they can achieve higher profits and higher yields, but they would have to use a considerable amount of time to monitor and analyze the hardware or software.  To a grower, that sounds a lot like an extra part-time job.

“Our solution has always been about saving time.  People are surprised to learn that successful growers spend the majority of their day managing the operation, not farming.  A conservative estimate is that we save 25 percent of the time for managing equipment and people in the field,” he said.


Creating a solution to farm management operations

Zelaya considers HeavyConnect’s business framework to be unconventional.  “We have taken the Silicon Valley startup model and turned it upside down,” he said.  Most companies, he continued, first develop the software and then market it to potential customers.  HeavyConnect works with its client base—the growers—throughout the entire process to create a solution that fits their needs.

Growers act as design partners for HeavyConnect’s products, giving initial input on the biggest challenges facing their operations.  HeavyConnect then designs the software platforms to the specifications of these growers.  Finally, these tools are tested by the growers before going to market, which allows the firm to make any necessary last-minute modifications.

The company creates its mobile platform with two goals in mind: 1) to take as much paperwork and red-tape out of the farm management process as possible and 2) to provide as much data, information and security as possible, to prevent expensive mistakes from occurring.

HeavyConnect offers applications that assist with universal fleet management, remote field work scheduling and tracking, asset management, production planning and in-field employee management.  For example, if a harvesting crew or tractor is about to work the wrong field, the employee and manager are notified through an app on their smartphone preventing the mistake that would have wasted valuable time and costly inputs . “When data is actionable, it’s valuable.  Everything we provide simplifies data into an actionable format to help farmers save money,” Zelaya said.


Growing a diverse workforce

A key part in developing tailor-made products is having technologists that understand agriculture.  HeavyConnect partners with Hartnell College and California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) to create a pathway from college to career for students with a passion for agriculture, technology and business.  As part of its mission to raise the next generation in agtech in the Salinas region, the company prioritizes software engineering students in the local area when choosing interns.  Additionally, HeavyConnect provides weekly seminars showing entrepreneurial students everything from starting a business and pitching investors to tackling software development issues and meeting the needs of clients.

“Salinas is a talent mill.  We want to make sure that jobs will be waiting for students who want to work locally and aren’t interested in moving to the Bay Area,” said Zelaya.  Nearly all of the company’s current employees are software engineering graduates of either Hartnell College or CSUMB.

The company also prides itself on creating diversity in the workforce by offering young Latinas opportunities and careers in technology.  According to the National Center for Women in Technology, in 2014, women held only 26 percent of all professional IT jobs in the entire country.  Hispanic women held a mere 1 percent.  HeavyConnect’s staff of software engineers is 75 percent female and 100 percent Latino.  Not to mention most have farming in their family hisotry, with either a parent or grandparent who has worked in the fields.

“We are proud of our demographics and it has strengthened our company,” Zelaya said. “I truly believe that our unconventional group of technologists is a very powerful corporate solution.”


Taking HeavyConnect into the future

As one of the inaugural residents in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, HeavyConnect is excited to work closely with Western Growers members to continue to develop products that support growers. The company is in the process of finalizing its field employee time-card app and are looking for “design partners” to help customize the product.  The app replaces paper time cards and the old time punch system with features determined by WG member feedback.

“We want to always stay of, by, and for growers,” said Zelaya. “We want to provide a brand-neutral software platform to the ag industry, and that’s the investment we value most.”

Product design partners, customers and investors all play an integral role in agtech start-up companies like HeavyConnect.  Zelaya is continually looking for firms to become customers or investors.