A Conversation with...
John McElhone (left) and Micheál McLaughlin (far left) are the co-founders of CHAP member CropSafe. John is the Chief Exec, while Micheál has taken on the crucial role of Chief Security Officer.
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
John: Typical days usually involve trying to spend as much time as possible with either our customers or the team – two of the most important groups when building a business. Outside of that, I would usually be programming our flagship app, sensor or often experimenting with satellites orbiting 300 miles above our heads. Alongside Micheál, I’m a co-founder of CropSafe, which means my job for the morning could involve running basic accounts, and by the evening, it could be tasking a satellite to photograph one of our customers farms. My job varies widely but I mainly focus on the technical and business development side, with a touch of just about everything else in-between.
Micheál: A typical day for me is helping farmers get onto our app and also getting feedback from our existing users. This can be in the form of an email, text message or from focus groups with a variety of farmers across the world.
What do you find most challenging about your job/field?
John: Apart from my dog’s obsession with interrupting my Zoom calls, the most challenging aspects of my job can often be difficult programming problems I run into that feel like impossible roadblocks. But as with most things, I find the solution is often only a few Google searches away, you just have to put your mind to it.
Micheál: The most challenging thing about my job is building trust with our farmers. We make this our main priority by constantly trying to improve our accuracy, by improving the app based on farmers’ feedback and being fully transparent in our communication.
Why do you do what you do?
John: I grew up surrounded by farms and was always helping in the fields. I’ve been building software my whole life and have built multiple apps and websites that have had 100,000s of users. I’ve taught computer science and Machine learning at Stanford and Nvidia, California. With my farming and software background I realised we could be saving farmers time, money and, more importantly, giving them peace of mind when growing their crops.
Micheál: I grew up on a farm my whole life and was always helping in the fields and with the livestock. I’ve also got a software engineering background and can see how we can bring the two together to make farmers’ lives easier. As John says, we aim to save farmers time, money and – most importantly – give them peace of mind. We’re doing this with our crop health alerts linking in to soil sensors, satellites and local weather stations all over the world.
Do you have a mentor or someone whose work inspired you? Who were they and how to have they influenced what you do?
John: We recently graduated from Ignite’s Propel, an accelerator here in Northern Ireland. Joining in January 2020, it’s probably what has shaped CropSafe the most over the past 10 months, from guest sessions from some of the most successful business leaders in the world, to personal mentorship support from their small but extremely knowledgeable and forward-thinking team. The management team: Chris, Ian, Kate and dozens of mentors that helped us throughout the programme, have made all the difference and have inspired us to push for better than best.
Micheál: On the farm my grandad was my mentor and he has definitely instilled a problem-solving mindset in me. He kept his farm in great nick, very organised and everything had a place. He is extremely dedicated, even at the age of 88. He has an amazing appreciation for the land and the animals on it. In business and software, we have had numerous impactful to name a few would be Seamus Cushley – R&D Site Lead at Bazaarvoice, Luigi De Curtis – Commercial Director at Deliveroo and Mario Kostelac – Senior Machine Learning Engineer at Intercom.
What do you think will be the biggest change in Agriculture over the next five years?
John: We’re already seeing the influx of new technology addressing age-old problems within the agricultural industry. However, we still have a long way to go; primarily in increasing the adoption of a digital connected farm. This isn’t just a trend that will come and go in a few years, but something that will define which producers will survive in the long term. We’ve seen this digital war before, in just about every other industry; what Amazon did for retail, what Tesla did for automobiles, or even what SpaceX did for spaceflight. Alternatives were squashed, no longer being able to compete with the scalable profit margins digital and innovation focus businesses offered. Within agriculture, our time will shortly come to choose our side. Do we innovate and adopt change or stay with our ways and hope for the best?
Micheál: Over the next five years as margins get tighter, farmers look to diversify their farm to increase their revenue and bring in supplementary income. We see optimisation of day-to-day tasks as the biggest barrier in agriculture. This is mainly because farmers will have to free up their time to experiment and try new things on the farm for this diversification. That’s why we think adopting new, cost-effective technology will be key to optimizing everything on the farm and therefore increasing revenue through diversifying.
What difference do you expect/hope to see in your field following CHAP’s involvement?
John: We joined CHAP in an effort to bring more outside voices within the agricultural industry into our network. Building products requires a lot of refinement through feedback, advice and thousands of customer conversations and we believe outside voices can help us bring another perspective to our approach with CropSafe.
Micheál: We hope to see a greater uptake of our technology from some of the most tech savvy and up to date farmers, in the UK.
Given a chance, who would you like to be for a day and why?
John: Probably myself in 10 years. I can imagine going back in time to my 10-year-old self right now, I might not realise it, but I know over time my younger self will come to appreciate the most valuable person to yourself is you. A thought I always keep in the back of my head is: “What would my younger self think of this decision? How will this decision affect my vision for myself in 10 years?” It’s exactly the thought which made me decide to skip out of going to University and focus full-time on CropSafe – I wanted more control to build what I wanted. If I could be one person for a day, I would be myself in 10 years. The best role model to yourself, should be the future you.
Micheál: Richard Feynman! He had an insane understanding of the world and the universe around us.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
John: When I get a moment, I often like to catch up on my reading list or even just spend time going for a walk which helps me work through my thinking and plans. When I get a chance, I’ll paddle out onto a lake with my kayak or rig up and head for a day of sailing. Both give great time to think and reflect in contrast to a busy day that gives your head no time for processing.
Micheál: I go for walks and run around the farm or the parks in the city, read up on physics, help grandad out on the farm or go fishing with my dad.
John McElhone, co-founder and CEO of CropSafe focuses on technical implementation and business development. Previous to CropSafe, he led social outreach campaigns reaching more than five million people organically across the world. With further experience teaching programmes at Stanford University, a graduate of Silicon Valley’s “42” programming school and recently chosen as TransferWise’s Top Young CEO under 20 in Europe, John works full-time on CropSafe and brings together the team to stay on track and make concrete progress. He can be contacted on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Micheál McLaughlin grew up on our family farm in rural Ireland. At CropSafe he is focusing strongly on our customer relationships, he leads our product feedback cycles and constant iteration sprints. CropSafe focuses on farmer-driven products and Micheál helps build the funnel to manage the feedback, ideas and needs of the thousands of farmers we speak to every year. He has a background in Software Engineering from Ulster University. He can be contacted on LinkedIn and Twitter.