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July 15th, 2020
Welcome to Leading Indiana Ambition – a series of leadership stories fueled by Elevate Ventures highlighting entrepreneurship across the Hoosier state. This month, we profiled Ellie Symes of The Bee Corp. Stay tuned for more!

The Bee Corp CEO Ellie Symes Reflects on Her Journey From Student to Entrepreneur

By Rachel Smith, Communications Specialist

The Bee Corp was founded in Bloomington following the 2014 creation of the Beekeeping Club at Indiana University. The agtech startup develops solutions for commercial bee pollination with Verifli, a mobile app that allows growers and beekeepers to measure colony strength without opening the hive. The Bee Corp joined the Elevate Ventures portfolio in 2017; and in 2019, the company moved its headquarters to Indianapolis.

CEO and founder Ellie Symes spoke to the Elevate team about her experience launching a business as a student and what resources helped the company along the way.

The Bee Corp evolved from a successful beekeeping club at Indiana University (IU). How was the transition from student to entrepreneur?

It was sort of a blended transition. We won the business plan competition at IU in February 2016. I remember being on a grad school trip to India for a class and being in the hotel, working on our funding documents. There was definitely a lot of time spent both trying to finish out that semester and school year and work on the business. I actually went part-time with my master’s degree and full-time with the business at the end of that semester. The rest of the founding team still needed to finish their undergrad degrees and they stayed full-time at school until they did that. It was interesting, but I think it was a good transition. When you’re a full-time grad student, you work unbelievably challenging hours and you’re on crazy deadlines, but as far as the workload and intensity of the transition, it was pretty seamless.

Did you have any guidance/mentorship or university support that helped with that transition? How was that helpful?

My grad program was extremely understanding and really flexible with me to make it work so that I could finish my degree while pursuing the business. I’m grateful to them for that; the scheduling was really easy to accomplish.

I had a ton of university support and mentorship on a lot of areas of the business outside of the transition. We got started with three IU Foundation board members that are still board members and advisory board members today. We have been supported by IURTC throughout our time running this business. Indiana University has been an incredible help. They’re still a great network for us for interns and talent, as well as getting advice from professors and experts in fields that we’re interested in.

As The Bee Corp has developed through different stages, how did you leverage the mentorship/guidance and how did that contribute to the company’s growth?

We added more formal mentors from outside the community that are also advisory board members. We located our office next to Cowork in Bloomington, which is now the Dimension Mill. That was a great experience having a community of innovators around. We’ve since moved up to Indianapolis into Launch Indy, so we’re around other startups there.

We also received help from the Indiana Small Business Development Center (ISBDC) through their INTAP program; the Next Level Jobs fund; the Bloomington Economic Development Council – which was helpful for making connections in the area. We were also in gBeta which has been incredible for helping us through our pivot, as well as growing our investor network. Our involvement with AgriNovus and TechPoint has been great. They’re both great organizations for companies like ours.

Lastly, Elevate Ventures is one of the groups we’re working with. I think Elevate really goes above and beyond with their Kinetic Conference. It truly is just a great way to meet with investors and get in front of them. That’s the best way we’ve been able to grow our investor network, through conferences like that – I’ve been able to maintain really good relationships from folks I’ve met there.

Looking back, did you ever think you would become an entrepreneur? Did you ever have an entrepreneurial spirit?

I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as entrepreneurial spirit at the time – that wasn’t even something I had thought of. It wasn’t until I came to grad school that I really understood what the power of social entrepreneurship is, and how much you can do good in business. Looking back, starting the beekeeping program was literally just a whim. I was a part of a group called Garden Corps and we were encouraged to start programs for the IU Campus Garden at Hilltop. I had done some work with bees over the previous summer and thought it would be a great project. Somehow, we got the IU Architect’s Office to say yes by working through the people who administer the garden, and then it just kind of bloomed from there.

That was definitely trying to solve a problem, trying to solve a need, and doing something cool. But really at the time just felt like, “Hey, I think bees would be cool on campus. I want a beehive, so maybe we can get a campus beehive.”

After reflecting on this in the last couple of years, I did attempt to start a dog-walking business when I was six. I was charging a dollar per walk. I put flyers all over the neighborhood, but sadly I had no customers. I guess the market for six-year-old dog walkers doesn’t really exist. I guess people don’t want to trust their dogs with a six-year-old. So I think I always had those tendencies and impulses. But to be honest, I thought my career would be in nonprofit work – for an environmental agency.

What advice would you give to students who want to become entrepreneurs? Are there definitive things they should start doing now?

When I meet student entrepreneurs, a lot of what I hear is that they really want to start a business. They just don’t know what they want to do, yet. Which is a pretty cool place to be in. If they have the drive already, then they’re 60% of the way there. Because you don’t get to fake that. I went on a whim and started a beekeeping club – that drive and that push to do something new isn’t something you can easily manufacture. I think the biggest question I get is, “What do I work on? What do I do?” For student entrepreneurs, I always encourage them to find a passion area; find a problem that they think is really important in the world and start by going out and researching it, finding out what are the nuances of that problem, and who does that problem affect. If you look into the problem first and know the ins and outs of it, then the solution is surprisingly not that challenging to fill in the gaps with.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of mentorship and guidance. Many universities, especially in Indiana, have programs and groups and meetups for student entrepreneurs. That’s a great way to get started and get connected with potential mentors or other students that might want to be a cofounder with you.

In 2018, The Bee Corp shifted focus after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation. Can you tell me more about that? How did it go?

We did shift focus and it’s still our business model and focus today. We finished our second pollination season with this new product and are already working on season three.

I think the pivot was challenging and stressful, but looking back, it was the smartest decision we’ve made. Through the National Science Foundation grant, we were able to learn how to focus on customer discovery much better than we had been doing. And we have let that continue to guide us. Anytime we even think of a feature, or we’re interested in how Verifli could help a different group and a different potential market, we go back to our roots of customer discovery and start talking to people that face that problem in that market to see if our ideas have legs. We do it for even just the little parts of the product as well. It’s just been a fantastic learning experience, and this put our business in a much better position today than where we would have been previously.

Why is Indiana a good place for an agtech company?
“It took me a couple of years to understand what people were talking about by Hoosier Hospitality, but now I get it. It’s how willing people are to spend time and lend a hand. And that’s crucial for when you’re trying to figure out a business. “

It was a no brainer to stay in Indiana when we started our business. One reason was because we all had to finish our degrees. I am a very firm believer that student entrepreneurs should finish their degrees. You can absolutely do that while you are building a startup. It’s the most important thing to have when you’re about to enter a very risky business and proposition. As we were here working on the business, finishing our degrees, we built a very strong network of mentors, advisors, resources, and investors. That was really the backbone of our business and our success. We knew we wanted to stay here and continue using that network.

Last year, we really wanted to solve a talent acquisition problem that we were facing, and we looked at several different cities. We looked at staying in Bloomington; moving up to Indy; moving to Denver to get closer to a remote employee, and moving to Sacramento to be closer to our customers. We did a pro/con analysis. One of the strongest pulls for staying in Indiana was that if we left, we would completely lose or weaken this network that supports our company. We didn’t want to take on the risk of having to rebuild that in a new city, especially because this is just such a strong place for startups with so much support.

We ended up making the jump up here to Indy – to take advantage of that network and to grow the talent pool – which was the perfect blend. There are so many strong resources here that make it easy to start a business; whether you’re a tech company, biotech company, life sciences, or an agtech company. For example, AgriNovus. I’m on the board there and they’re doing amazing things and programs for agtech startups in Indiana. These ecosystems and resources aren’t replicated everywhere. We’ve definitely taken advantage of it and that’s all I could encourage folks to do: use this amazing network that Indiana has.

Neither myself nor my co-founder are originally from Indiana. It took me a couple of years to understand what people were talking about by Hoosier Hospitality, but now I get it. It’s how willing people are to spend time and lend a hand. And that’s crucial for when you’re trying to figure out a business. That is truly the competitive advantage of the state of Indiana. It’s an essential pillar you need for businesses; people who are willing to just grab coffee and let you pick their brain for an hour or so. After a few years running a business here, that’s what I think really stands out and makes Indiana special.

How much has your team grown since you launched?

We started with four founders, and since then we have grown to eight full-time employees and six part-time employees. It’s been incredible to grow the team in that way.

What’s next for The Bee Corp?

We remain laser-focused again on almond pollination and a couple more crop markets that we want to bring this product to. For us, it’s heads down working on hitting our milestones and metrics for that pollination season.

 

 

Read our previous Leading Indiana Ambition story profiling Owl Manor CEO Mark Schindel here.
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