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Mar 15, 2017 2017-03 Alumni Business Administration

Lucas Frye: Planting Seeds for Success

Lucas FryeLucas Frye has farming in his blood. He grew up outside Havana, Illinois, on a family farm where for three generations they have been growing typical Illinois crops—corn and soybeans—as well as some specialty crops, including popcorn. Frye attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, where he majored in Agricultural Economics. He was an outstanding student, receiving the Robert M. Harrison Leadership Award in 2014 and the Warren K. Wessels Achievement Award in 2015. In addition, he was among the select group of graduating seniors named to the Illini 100. He also had some unique extracurricular experiences, most notably serving as the student trustee representing the Urbana-Champaign campus on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees during his senior year. While on the board, he took part in interviewing and selecting Timothy Killeen as the twentieth president of the University of Illinois system, and in the approval of the new college of medicine, which is the first new college on the campus in nearly 60 years. “That was perhaps my most professional experience,” said Frye. “That one year experience was probably one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve had—just sitting in a room with nine prominent, successful individuals and seeing how they made difficult decisions.” An MBA was not on Frye’s radar until he took a course from the late Dr. Paul Magelli. During his senior year, Frye was taking Magelli’s course on the Foundations of Entrepreneurship. During that course, Magelli first commented to Frye that he should consider the MBA, particularly the MBA at Illinois. After some consideration, Frye took that—as it turned out—life-changing advice. Early in the fall of that first year of his MBA studies, Frye attended a startup event where University of Illinois students pitched ideas to gather team members to help with a project for the Cozad New Venture Competition. Frye went to hear the pitches, but he wasn’t initially captivated by any of the projects. He was just on his way out to head back home when someone told him of a group that needed some help developing the business model. That is when Fry met his eventual co-founder, Joey Varikooty, an undergraduate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Varikooty grew up on the east coast in Edison, New Jersey. A hacker at heart with instrumentation design experiences at bioresearch labs and Fitbit R&D, Varikooty came into the weekend to develop a sensor that could determine when objects in a dryer were sufficiently dry. Frye quickly thought of the largest dryer he knew: a grain bin. Grain moisture is an important piece of information for farmers. The money they receive when they deliver their grain to market can go up or down depending on the moisture content of the grain. Corn, for instance, is sold based on weight of the grain at a moisture content of 15 percent. If the corn moisture is too high, farmers are charged a fee to dry out the grain more, which decreases what they receive for the crop. If the grain is too dry, farmers then lose the money that the extra moisture weight would have added to the grain. Could this sensor be designed work in a grain bin? Varikooty told Frye yes, the device could be adapted for that task. “From that weekend, we were really building toward the Cozad Competition in April,” Frye said. Throughout the fall and spring semesters, they researched the problem, market, and current practices in more detail and even began prototyping. The goal was to develop a product that would require minimal installation for the farmer. “We realized that automating the process of grain management with wireless sensors would be an interesting take on this situation,” said Frye, “all focused on helping farmers secure the highest price possible for their grain.” The effort that the team put into the project paid off, and they won the competition. Following a summer focused on customer discovery while being based out of the iVenture Accelerator in Research Park, Frye and Varikooty were confident in shifting attention toward prototype development. A unique opportunity presented itself: They were offered a spot in Hax Accelerator based in the hardware capital of the world—Shenzhen, China. Frye decided to complete his second year of the MBA program remotely. “ has been very open in navigating this new territory,” said Frye. “I was able to set up independent studies with professors that were directly applicable to what we’re working on with Amber Agriculture. And then there were certain classes where I would Skype in at five a.m. over in China.”Amber Agriculture sensor Frye and Varikooty exhibited at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in January. Their product really stood out from the others, and they were named Best Startup by Engadget. “I think we had a little bit of luck on our side. It was definitely a case of different stood out,” said Frye. “We had agriculture under our name in our logo, and people would ask, ‘Agriculture? Why are you guys here?’” That was how they first attracted the attention of Engadget, whose editors really liked what Frye and Varikooty had to show. There is a lot in store for Frye and Amber Agriculture. After finishing their time in China in December, they are now based out Silicon Valley through the spring. Frye said, “We have been sharing with everyone that we are taking the long way home back to the Midwest.” “At the end of the day, this story is true testament to all the great initiatives taking place at the University of Illinois,” Frye said. “As co-founders from different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and different sides of campus, we were brought together at the intersection of our interests through entrepreneurship at Illinois. I’d personally like to thank my supportive family, the late great Dr. Paul Magelli, and the Illinois MBA Program for giving me the opportunity to pursue the entrepreneurial path. Hopefully the story is just beginning.”