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From electric vehicles to the internet of herds: The Rogue Rovers story

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Bringing innovations that make sense for farming and ranching is not always an easy thing to do. It’s a market segment that moves on the basis of relationships, as opposed to quick scaling user acquisition platforms and plays.

Rogue Rovers, an Ashland based company, is focused on not only the development of technologies for this massive industry, but also on building solid and long term relationships with the farmers and ranchers whose innate knowledge will be the ultimate driver on how technology can effectively engage and help.p02lfbqp

Connecting the EV market to agriculture

There are two big problems in agriculture today – the ability to gather, and then generate, data. Rogue Rovers was started to address those two big challenges through advanced technology and engineering.

What many people in urban areas take for granted in regards to localized content during their everyday lives, apps for everything and constant connectivity, are not the conditions found in agriculture. Moreover, the specialty farms that are smaller, more specialized and in more varied terrains have an even greater challenge – getting low cost solutions that can help them.

This is where Melissa Brandao, CEO & Founder of Rogue Rovers, saw not only an opportunity, but a way to create a company that focuses on bridging technology with real world agricultural problems.

IMG_7773“ We came together to create an AgTech company that was doing more than just web-based solutions. We wanted to make advanced hardware systems that could solve real world problems, while keeping it simple and low cost.”

Melissa is a self described technologist with a lot of maker mixed in. She started her career at Apple and has spent the past 10 years in the AgTech space. And while a tech evolution from Apple to AgTech may not make sense to some, Melissa’s background is rooted in farm life, as she grew up on one.

This farming background gave her an innate understanding of the challenges and opportunities around farming and agriculture, especially those associated with equipment and processes. Farming is still pretty simple and basic when compared to the fast moving world seen in urban areas.

Enter the development of the FarmDogg, an electric four wheel drive vehicle.

The term “Dogg” is widely used by the Rogue Rovers team and Melissa explains its significance, “ Dogg means Data Generator-Gatherer. We developed our FarmDogg rover as the platform that will replace existing farm equipment because it’s a versatile, fully controllable mobile platform, and can support robotics.”

A data generating electric four wheel drive vehicle.static1.squarespace

If it sounds unique, that is indeed true. But the uniqueness is built on a solid vision about why and how this vehicle will help farmers. Electric propulsion is focused on precision control, which is an essential factor in autonomy and smart vehicles.

The precision control allows for pin-point accuracy in speed control, location and performance, all while having a low decibel level that allows you to hear your surroundings and not spook the animals. The FarmDogg’s data collection is done with delicate sensors and cameras. The smooth motion helps to protect these elements and creates a more stable data collection process. Electric vehicles also have fewer moving parts so the downtime is less than gas powered vehicles, which is an important benefit to farmers in rural areas.

But Melissa didn’t set out to create an EV company in Southern Oregon.

“ I kind of fell into electric vehicles on accident. Up until then I had been working with disruptive technology but it was always software. I spent four years abroad building companies in emerging markets providing market data so capitalism and investor access to markets could work more efficiently in places like Russia and Latin America. Electric vehicles are one of the examples that Chris Christensen sites as a disruptive technology and it was hardware–tangible–I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get into this technology. But as you know the EV industry has had many ups and downs and has yet to gain the market traction to become the norm. I always have been about focusing these technologies on solutions that are a best fit for them. Ag has made sense to me and as I stated earlier there’s a need to move Ag forward in its technology development.”IMG_6723

This need to move Ag technology forward has brought much well deserved attention to what Rogue Rovers is building, including a trip to the White House to participate in the first ever Demo Day at the White House.  From Southern Oregon to the White House. The team at Rogue Rovers had created a product that effectively helped farmers in their day to day work and the pre-orders were coming in.

Everything was going great, so the time was perfect to focus on the next evolution of the company.

Creating a product for the Internet of Herds (IoH)

Rogue Rovers started with the intent to design and manufacture rovers.

But during the process of talking to farmers and ranchers about the FarmDogg, what they began to realize was these folks were struggling to retrieve the most simple ID information off of animals, and that the current retrieval process was both stressful to the rancher as well as the herd. This was especially true on ranches where the animals are free range or pasture raised.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.12 PMThe Rogue Rover’s team saw the opportunity to create a product that could directly address a problem in ranching today, and thus was born the HerdDogg.

“ We developed HerdDogg, which is a wearable device for improved accuracy of livestock traceability and biometrics. The HerdDogg eco-system is made up from three parts: the DoggTag, the DoggBone and HerdDogg.io.The DoggTag is an ear tag designed for generating biometrics from livestock and herd animals. The DoggBone, is a small multi-pairing device that reads data from the DoggTags with an estimated range of 30 feet. It connects, transmits and stores the data using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). When the DoggBone is near a cell phone or laptop it can then transmit the data to the cloud at <HerdDogg.io. HerdDogg.io is your dashboard access to all your herd’s data available from anywhere on mobile or computer. “

One of the key features is that ranchers can put the DoggBone anywhere they want to collect data; the watering trough, a favorite tree, on your own herd dog, or even just in your pocket. The Bone is going to collect data as often as the rancher is near the herd, but because it’s using Bluetooth instead of RF or other more expensive and complex protocols, Rogue Rovers can keep it simple and low cost.

David ‘Duppy’ Proctor, the CTO of Rogue Rovers, explains how the tech is similar to some well-known wearables.doggbone.doggtag.noAGM

“ The Bone is constantly collecting herd data. The data collected includes temperature (ambient and animal), light, activity via an accelerometer and relative location – it’s like a fitbit for cows”

But the data collected goes far beyond the number of steps a cow takes in a day. The data received by the rancher is both beneficial and actionable. Cows that are sick get lethargic, and the via the dashboard, the rancher can identify potential sick cows. How quickly an animal lays down after they eat is relative to the quality of food they ingested.

The Bone’s constant gathering of data is also allowing ranchers to evolve how they breed the cows. The current method is to use tail chalk, which is a process of putting chalk on females and the chalk rubs off once the female is mounted. The Bone allows ranchers to see which cows are fidgety at night, a sign that they are in heat. Once these females are identified, the ranchers know that they have roughly 16 hours to breed them, and once the female is pregnant, this pattern of activity ceases to occur.

The percentage of cows that get pregnant during a breeding season is vital to the profitability of a ranch, and the Bone is helping ranchers increase this percentage via data gathering.Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.50 PM

Engaging farmers and ranchers in a collaborative manner is something that Melissa has focused on from the beginning.

“ The truth is that I just really like working with farmers and ranchers. They are the original makers. They’re clever how about to build something, being independent thinkers. Yet hey have an immense responsibility being the growers of our food and I want to help to support them. What is so exciting is to see how many of our engineers are emerging from rural Oregon and how excited they are about supporting the industry in their backyard. Rogue Rovers supports the eco-system of rural makers and engineers. The farmer’s daughters and sons today are tech savy but when it comes to applying that to the family farm–there’s still a long way to go. That’s where Rogue Rovers wants to operate.”

It is an operation that is looking to make the Rogue Valley home base for a flexible and sustainable business that is internally focused on implementing ideas and processes more similar to Silicon Valley, and putting those to work in rural areas of Oregon.

Melissa is keenly aware that creating a company for the long haul starts with creating a team that can deliver on the initial mission and goals.

IMG_5770 copy“ My team is fantastic collection of people that I have worked with, and people that have come to us. Our CTO David “Duppy” Proctor I have known since I was in elementary school. He’s a brilliant hardware technologist. I knew he was the right guy for the job but it took some convincing for him to consider doing tech outside of the consumer products and gadgets that he was used to. Now he’s completely converted. He just as happy to go out and work on site with our farmers and ranchers and get some dirt on his boots. We all like that–that’s really the best part of the job.  Our firmware engineer was referred to us by one of his partners and our web developer contacted us looking for an internship and on it goes. “

On it goes indeed. Rogue Rovers was recently featured on the show America’s Greatest Makers to pitch HerdDogg. And even though the team still believes in EV’s as a platform, they are just as excited about being the cornerstone technology around the Internet of Herds, which they all really believe is the future of Ag.

And even though the future of Ag may sound like something reserved for farmers and ranchers, there are applications some of us may see and use in the near future. The DoggBone can also generate SMS alerts, and yes, be connected to social media. So if you go in on say ¼ cow with some other folks, you can now keep track of said cow via a mobile device and possibly see some tweets about its daily activities.

Welcome to the future of ag.

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For more information, visit www.roguerovers.com. You can also follow them on twitter and instagram.

 

Building a world-class MEMS foundry in the Rogue Valley

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Building technology, as it turns out, might actually be easier than inventing it.

“Easier” is not the word Rogue Valley Microdevices cofounders Jessica Gomez and Patrick Kayatta would choose. But when the husband-and-wife team wanted to launch a business in their field of expertise, it came down to making other’s inventions or trying to launch one of their own.

They opted to make stuff—really complex, precise, high-tech stuff—in contrast to the high-dollar, high-wire investment common in micro-processing. In so doing, they launched a one-of-a-kind business that has solidified its niche.412791_379795092046535_1218187416_o

“Our business model isn’t the typical startup business model based on emerging tech or a new product launch, which a lot of times comes from working on technology in the university,” Gomez says. “Eventually patents are filed and they’ll do some proof-of-concept work and start raising money. If they are lucky and tenacious they’ll get funded eventually. Then the clock starts ticking. They have five years maybe to get that product to market. It’s very difficult. Our model is different.”

The decision likely meant more work, longer hours, and a gut-wrenching level of risk, but it has paid off how they both hoped, with steady work in a place they wanted to raise a family.

Gomez, 37, Rogue Valley Microdevices CEO says, their company is the only microelectronics manufacturing facility in Southern Oregon.

“We build other entities’ projects,” Gomez says. Customers include universities, hi-tech companies, even startups. “Really anyone who is lacking the ability to manufacture the chip that they have designed or need.”

Asked where the competition is, Gomez says, “Taiwan.”

415767_379781772047867_2048210312_o“This is becoming more difficult to do in the U.S., but there is a strong market for it. It’s the story of the U.S. with all these companies building this disruptive technology. But once it becomes a commodity it goes offshore.”

Global competition is fierce. But relative proximity to American companies and universities has its advantages as well. In some ways, this Southern Oregon company is the best local alternative.

From New York to Ashland

Gomez and Kayatta first met during the late 1980s when both worked at Standard Microsystems Corporation in Long Island, N.Y.

Gomez started as a minimum-wage lab operator on an assembly line. Boredom motivated her to educate herself in other aspects of the business like manufacturing, processes and software configuration.

Kayatta was recruited to a startup in Los Angeles. Gomez followed. They saw first-hand the perils of the startup culture when the business eventually shut down. The couple then decided to go into business of their own.

The big decision was where.

“We thought about staying but the cost of operating a facility there it didn’t look financially doable,” Gomez says.

They thought about going back to Long Island, which also was cost prohibitive. Florida? Wasn’t a good fit, they thought. Finally, Gomez started thinking about Southern Oregon for its proximity to the Bay Area and Portland and its relative cost of living. It didn’t hurt that she had lived there for a while as teen and still had family there. She hadn’t loved it back then, but now with a family and a business in their plans, it grew on her.

The favorable business culture, especially assistance from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. (SOREDI), sealed the deal.

SOREDI is a non-profit organization tasked with developing business prosperity in Jackson and Josephine Counties. It offers services including assistance in site selection, permit applications and access to capital. For Gomez and Kayatta who were making repeated trips up Interstate 5, the help from SOREDI was enough to leap in and make the move.

The couple invested everything they had. SOREDI took a second position on the bank financing, which mitigated the bank’s risk and helped secure the loan.

“That’s the only way we could fund the company with the start-up costs,” she says.336818_508217062537670_2104100553_o

They set up their first clean rooms and got to work.

“We started really basic. We did two types of films. We had maybe 500 to 1,000 square feet of clean rooms and started making money,” Gomez recalls.

She estimates that the monthly budget demanded about $14,000 in revenue just to survive and keep up the lines of credits they took. Credit card debt grew as well. So did their work hours.

“It’s sort of out necessity right?” she says. “Because we don’t have the ability to have this big multimillion dollar exit. It’s not attractive for an investor to put a bunch of money into this company, so we just kept putting it in ourselves. We wanted something that was going to be around for many years.”

They succeeded. The business has enjoyed steady growth and earned a reputation for quality and attention to detail that is critical in microdevice manufacturing.

“We didn’t have the option to fail. We took everything we had, our income, our house, our credit into this company. We lived off Pat’s 401K working 18 hours a day,” Gomez says. “The first five years were really tough. We’d basically sleep here.”

But perhaps the biggest accomplishment is they survived with their marriage intact.

“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Gomez says. “I was 25 when we started this company. It was two of us. We didn’t have a team of engineers.”

That common sense focus still guides the company, she says. They continue to focus on what they do very well. They don’t worry about the mega deals that happen in other companies, like the recently announced billion dollar super merger between Spansion and Cypress. That’s not their business model and it’s never been their goal, she says.

“That big giant pay-off for us is not as important as steady jobs,” she says.409281_379774998715211_1537131771_n

Often it’s inevitable when a company scales up its technology and begins mass production for it to take the work offshore. Prior to that expansion is a niche where Rogue Valley Microdevices excels.

“We are supporting a lot of this cutting edge stuff that we don’t want to introduce to a foreign environment especially in those beginning,” Gomez says.

Building Southern Oregon tech

With the business more secure and a team of roughly 20 employees, the work hours remain long but the survival stress has abated. Gomez has begun to connect with others to offer what help she can. She also wants to help generate funding for other startups, which will help the nascent tech corridor in the Rogue Valley grow, recruit a strong workforce and improve the community’s economy.

339083_379797188712992_793926256_oThe region’s tech culture doesn’t have a lot of depth, but it does have “one of everything,” Gomez says. The diversity of tech interests and culture isn’t common in a rural area.

“We are all very unique so we have to do it in a unique way,” she says.

Part of that is continued work with SOREDI and other public and private agencies seeking to boost the innovation economy. She helped start the Sustainable Valley Technology group to help develop resources for entrepreneurs. Jackson County came aboard as an initial funder with an investment of $50,000 to help attract and assist high-tech, clean energy businesses.

“We thought this was the best and brightest idea we’ve heard in a long time,” Commissioner C.W. Smith said.

The focus of the group is to help provide office space, support services and venture capital for emerging businesses, a Jackson County press release stated.

“I’ve been working a long time to develop resources for startup companies. I believe that’s critical for our local economy,” Gomez says.

She also serves on the state workforce board. She’s well aware of the obstacles for the region.

“It’s hard to find really good well qualified employees to hire in any of these companies. I thought we were unique but I hear stories and I don’t think we are.”

Next steps

Plans for the future look very much like the present. Hard work, excellent quality products delivered to innovative companies that need that specialized care Rogue Valley Microsystems provides.

Expansion is coming, but not in the form of a massive multi-million dollar merger or investment partner. It looks more like a larger building and putting into use more clean room space that is critical to increase production.

“We are pretty packed,” Gomez says. They recently purchased a $10,000-foot clean room that was decommissioned by Intel, she says, but they don’t have anywhere to put. That will have to change soon.

It’s all part of the original plan, the so-called easier way to launch a high-tech company in a rural outpost.

“We still want jobs and to provide for ourselves and make a decent living,” she says, for herself, her husband and their growing number of employees. Just like they started, it’s pretty basic, but in the fundamentals have come the success and perhaps a model for others coming to the region to follow.335885_379785108714200_1590338315_o

For more information, visit www.roguevalleymicrodevices.com, like them on facebook, or follow them on twitter and LinkedIn