Stephanie Burns, June 11th, 2020
Shortly after COVID-19 brought a halt to business as usual, entrepreneur and Texas A&M alum Alfredo Costilla-Reyes read about farmers across the United States having to dump produce due to supply chain disruptions. They poured gallons of fresh milk into manure piles, dug ditches to bury millions of pounds of onions, and plowed ripe vegetables back into the ground. With restaurants, hotels, and schools closed, farmers lost half of their buyers overnight. Meanwhile, grocery stores and food banks experienced shortages because they didn’t have enough equipment like refrigerators to accommodate all the excess food.
“I was reading about farmers having big problems reaching customers. They need a marketplace, and it shouldn’t be so difficult,” Costilla-Reyes said over a Zoom call, smiling brightly in front of a virtual background of a library packed with colorful books. “But for a lot of them, to try to figure out how all this online stuff works is stressful and cumbersome.”
And so the idea for Costilla-Reyes’ newest company, DayOneAI, was born. Currently in the initial stages of invite-only beta testing, DayOneAI will help farmers create an online presence in order to reach new customers. Farmers will text information like a description of their business and products to DayOneAI, which will use machine learning and AI to automate a website, online store, and social media accounts. Farmers will also receive alerts about Google and Twitter trends, so they can write targeted social media and blog posts and keep their sites optimized for SEO.
DayOneAI is a direct extension of BitGrange, the company that Costilla-Reyes founded while pursuing his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M. Having been raised in a family of farmers, Costilla-Reyes wanted to expand his PhD research to help improve the lives of people he grew up with. This desire propelled him to venture over from the Electrical Engineering department to the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship and the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars. There, he realized he could combine his interests into a single company, BitGrange, which lies at the intersection of technology and agriculture and builds hydroponic devices so anyone, anywhere can grow produce indoors. BitGrange gained recognition in Mexico, when President Enrique Peña Nieto presented Costilla-Reyes with the Mexico National Youth Award at a reception in Mexico City.
When stay-at-home orders started, Costilla-Reyes realized it would be too difficult to continue developing and deploying hardware like hydroponics. He leaned on his learnings from Texas A&M to quickly pivot from hardware that grows produce to software that sells it: “What we learned through programs like Blackstone LaunchPad and the Techstars Entrepreneur’s Toolkit is that it’s not about you as much as the problem itself. You have to be able to evolve and transform in order to improve the life of as many people as possible.”
Despite the shift in focus, Costilla-Reyes sees DayOneAI as a direct extension of BitGrange. At the end of the day, as long as he’s using technology to make farmer’s lives easier and better, he’ll be satisfied — even if that means shifting to focus on helping farmers be in direct contact with customers, so they can sell food locally and earn more money. “I believe that AI shouldn’t be competing for jobs,” Costilla-Reyes explains. “It has its advantages, like looking for patterns. But growing plants, taking care of customers, caring for the environment, those are all things AI can’t replicate. With DayOneAI, farmers can do what they do best and leave the complexity of building an online presence to AI.”
Over the next few months, Costilla-Reyes will further develop DayOneAI as a participant in Rice University’s OwlSpark accelerator. By the end of the summer, he hopes to complete the private beta, roll out a public beta, pitch to investors in Houston, and start a capital raise ($250K for a pre-seed round, and $1M for a seed round). Rather than be frustrated by the way the pandemic affected BitGrange, Costilla-Reyes is nothing but excited about the new opportunity on hand. “I want to embrace this opportunity… It’s nice to be an entrepreneur and have a company that’s so small because you can switch from one place to another and you have that agility.”
LauraLee Hughes, Assistant Director of New Ventures for the McFerrin Center, home of Blackstone LaunchPad and other entrepreneurship programs, worked closely with Costilla-Reyes as he explored the school’s entrepreneurial offering. She’s unsurprised by Costilla-Reyes’ adaptability when faced with a crisis. “Alfredo is a bright young mind with a true passion for changing the world through technology. During his time as a PhD student, he pursued numerous startup ideas, engaging in almost every program the McFerrin Center has to offer. His entrepreneurial spirit, never-ending desire to learn, and eagerness to help others have made him a true asset to the Aggie entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
More than anything, Costilla-Reyes’ engagement with Texas A&M’s entrepreneurial ecosystem shifted the way he thinks about his work. “When you’re doing a PhD, people tell you that you have to compete, you have to do something that’s publishable. It’s all about I and ME. But if you go to [the school’s accelerator] Startup Aggieland and Blackstone LaunchPad, you begin to learn about other people, and that’s really crucial. I enjoyed grad school so much because I started to think like an entrepreneur instead of a scientist. At first, I wanted to build something to win a Nobel Prize. But now, I want to improve lives. It’s not about my skill, but how I can serve others with my work.”
For other Aggies thinking about entrepreneurship, Costilla-Reyes has a few pieces of advice. First, believe in yourself and don’t give up when you face a failure. “We see these big businesses and think they’re overnight success…. But being an entrepreneur you have so many ups and downs. When I first tried to use hydroponics, I thought maybe I’m not meant for this. But I kept going.” Second, build something that solves a problem — even if that solution isn’t what you originally set out to make. And third, serve others. “If I make a product and the end goal is nothing more than a research paper, I’ve failed. I want my work to be useful for other people. And there’s not a better way to do that than through entrepreneurship.”
Costilla-Reyes’ attitude about entrepreneurship has helped him remain optimistic in the face of COVID-19. “When others see hectic times, horrific economic downturn, entrepreneurs see opportunity… That’s the best way to approach crisis.”