What do you get when you combine breakneck speeds on one of the country’s toughest racetracks with hungry upstarts eager to prove their mettle?
The BMW Hot Lap Pitch, of course.
Strapped in the blindingly fast BMW M550i—the fastest 5 Series ever built—nine entrepreneurs took to the challenge of pitching their startups to VCs Patrick Gallagher and Susan Hobbs for a chance to take the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY.
After many dizzying twists and turns piloted by racing legend Bill Auberlen, 23-year-old Erica Lee emerged as the winner, propelling her and her agtech startup, DeepFarm, into the spotlight. We teamed up with BMW to learn more about Lee’s journey to Disrupt NY and her ambitious plans to help the world through DeepFarm.
Question: At what point did you realize that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Erica Lee: I always had a passion for mathematics and applied engineering. When I was at Johns Hopkins engineering school I realized I didn’t want to be a mathematician or a scientist, so I ended up dropping out when I was 19. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to work at a startup for a year, and after that I realized that business was the vehicle that I could use to best express my talents and passions.
Q: Dropping out of college seems to be a rite of passage for many successful entrepreneurs, how was this experience for you?
Lee: It’s a thrill looking back. It was scary since I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know I wanted to start a company until I just did it, and I didn’t know what the word entrepreneur or founder was until I moved to the Bay area when I was in my twenties. It wasn’t until I registered my company that I saw the words “owner” and “president” on the paperwork that I realized that an entrepreneur was someone who starts a company, owns it and grows it.
Q: Can you give us a run-through of what DeepFarm is?
Lee: Sure! We’re an agriculture analytics platform using AI for early detection of crop issues. Along with my co-founder Austin Whaley, we analyze farm data at three levels—above, at, and below the soil—to give farmers visibility of crop issues they don’t normally see and help them increase their crop yield with our treatment recommendations. Right now we have several prototypes and we’ll getting ready to launch our first product.
Q: Considering that you haven’t had formal training in computer science, how were you able to acquire the skills to make DeepFarm a reality?
Lee: I always try to surround myself with people who are experts, that’s the best way to learn. I also found these amazing online courses that Stanford’s science program publishes…I just read everything online. I also have many friends at Stanford so I was able to ask people for advice and figure it out I think programming is something you learn over time through practice. It’s like learning to play the piano.
Q: You have wide-ranging interests, what are some of your other interests?
Lee: I’ve always wanted to work with robotics—I have so much R2D2 stuff at my house—I’m excited about autonomous robotics that help people with chores, or help them lead healthier lifestyles…or maybe robots that make dangerous working conditions safe. I’m not exactly sure which field or application, but definitely something that will help increase human safety and improve the quality of life.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about starting their own business?
Lee: If you have to think about it, then probably starting a company is not the right thing to do. If you want to do it, then I say make the jump because in a startup, you’re always going to be the first person in the company to do everything, whether it’s learning how to sell, building a product or hiring. If you’re having a difficult time trying to decide if you want to start a company, then you’ll probably have a difficult time with every other decision in making it happen. It’s a commitment that you basically do for the rest of your life, so you have to be ready to go into it.
In the fast-paced startup world, speed and agility is everything. So for the Hot Lap Pitch, BMW sent nine founders to the racetrack, and gave them each one full-throttle lap in the M550i—the fastest 5 Series ever built—to pitch their startups to a team of VCs for a chance to take the stage at Disrupt NY.