IoT and the Wide Open West

By Nichin Sreekantaswamy, GEN’17

Barn Owl LLC was the last place I imagined myself working this summer. Yet, here I am in scenic Colorado Springs, slogging away from 8 to 6 in a downtown coworking space.

Josh and me at the ranching trade show in Steamboat Springs, CO
Josh and me at the ranching trade show in Steamboat Springs, CO

So what is Barn Owl? “We strive to bring remote monitoring solutions to ranchers and farmers, helping them save time and money. Basically, we are IoT for agriculture!” says Founder and CEO Josh Phifer, a Wharton MBA student.

I was introduced to Barn Owl via one of my course instructors at Penn at a time when I was desperately searching for internships, and I really liked the company’s idea of using existing technology to help the ranching and farming industry. It was right in the middle of all the big buzzwords “AgTech,” ”IoT,” and “Data Analytics”. Having grown up on a ranch, Josh understands the ranching industry and is on a mission to help ranchers while satisfying his entrepreneurial thirst. I, an Electrical Engineering master’s student at Penn, was drawn in by the charm a new tech startup holds. “The possibilities are endless…” I recall actually thinking out loud in my room. I signed up to work for him in a heartbeat. Never did I imagine what exactly lay ahead as the sole engineer at this tech startup, which came into existence partly because I joined it. I am an intern, hardware engineer, firmware developer, full-stack web developer, and Chief Technical Officer all rolled into one.

For me, this is a dream come true. After all these years I spent studying in school, I have been given a chance to create an actual product that we will sell to customers.  My mission for the summer is to develop and test a prototype of our first product, a wireless water tank sensor for ranches. I am covering everything from hardware design and manufacturing to a web database and front-end dashboard for our customers.

Some of the really cool perks of working at a pre-funded startup is being involved in events and decisions related to all functions of starting a company. I help Josh make decisions about strategy, technology, and partnerships for our company. I had the opportunity to participate in conversations with potential investors, attend networking events with the mayor of Colorado Springs, and scope out potential startup accelerators. As a team, we explored near-term and long-term manufacturing and logistics options. Finally, I even had the chance to test out my marketing and sales skills at a ranching trade-show, where I also got to see Josh prepare for a TV interview at 6:00 in the morning.

Not everything is sunshine and roses, of course. We constantly discuss our business plan and technology decisions and have spent countless hours researching our options. I have gone through two full cycles of prototype development because we discarded the first prototype after electing to change the wireless technology for a newer one that has more capability but also comes with more risk.

Over the next couple of weeks we will be on ranches, field testing our prototype. Undoubtedly, this will be the most exciting experience of the summer. With more than half of my internship behind me now, I can definitely say that this has been one of my most rewarding work experiences. I am now a better engineer, who can develop products by keeping in mind technical, financial, and strategic considerations. Of course, spending the summer at a pre-funded startup isn’t the most financially lucrative job, but the Startup Internship Award provided a much appreciated boost. We are well on our way to achieving product-market fit despite running very “lean” this summer, and we believe the future of Barn Owl is bright.

Nichin squareBio: Nichin Sreekantaswamy hails from the city of palaces, Mysore, India, and is a rising second-year Electrical Engineering master’s student at Penn. He picked up a passion for designing smart systems and robotics after internships at Caltech and IST, Portugal. At Penn he has been a part of the Intercultural Leadership Program and has a lot of experience and awareness in dealing with people with diverse skills and cultures. After graduating he hopes to start his career in the IoT industry and eventually achieve his dream of starting a company.