“To work in a startup is a rollercoaster everyday”

What’s the recipe for success to become a world class startup? How does the rollercoaster life of a young founder look like? We took the chance to talk to Igor Ivanov, CFO at Gamaya, an ambitious AgriTech startup and one of the winners of the Swisscom StartUp Challenge 2015.

Igor Ivanov, CFO Gamaya

Igor, Gamaya has recently won the prestigious pitch competition Start Summiteer 2016 and has been nominated for the W.A. Vigier award. What’s your recipe for success?
As always the recipe is quite straightforward and simple, however the complexity is to follow instructions and guidelines. I believe that appreciation of Gamaya by different organizations is a result of three main points. First, we address one of the core challenges to feed growing population in a sustainable way using state-of-the-art unique technology. Our technology is among the most effective known methods to obtain the necessary knowledge and thus facilitate significant progress towards smarter, sustainable farming. Second, it’s the hard work of the team despite any circumstances and resilience to failure. We have a great team with a unique skillset, who are very proactive, stubborn and eager to develop completely new product and technology from scratch. Lastly, it’s quite an ambitious vision to build a global company, a pioneer in smart farming. All this supported by the excellent startup eco-system built around EPFL.


We suppose not everything is as easy as pie – what are currently your biggest challenges?
Shortly speaking, work in a startup is a rollercoaster every day. And we are not an exception facing a lot of challenges during our way to build a billion dollar company. Among the biggest challenges we are currently facing is a transition from a research environment of EPFL to a commercially driven and product oriented environment. R&D is not enough, it’s just a beginning of the product development process. Business culture has its own values, priorities and rules. Another complexity is the constant need to learn new fields of business development, management, sales, operations in a short period of time. This need complemented by the fast pace of the working environment in a startup creates the endless workload, that could be quite exhausting. Another challenge that we’ve faced here in Europe is a lack of AgriTech related investors and experts, mainly due to the fact that agriculture in Europe is not perceived as a technology-driven industry, while US alone invested $5bn of venture capital in AgriTech in 2015.


What’s the advantages and disadvantages in focussing on one single market, in your case Brazil?
We’ve been constantly told by our business advisors to focus, focus and focus. However, it’s not easy especially when you have a plenty of opportunities and requests constantly coming to you. So, we spend quite some time deciding on a first single market. We ended up in Brazil. If you define very clearly your target niche market, then you increase your probability to succeed due to better understanding of the product-market fit, customer requirements and competitive environment. Among disadvantages are little diversification of your business strategy, high dependency on a particular market, exposure to economic / political/ market risks.


In order to develop a highly sophisticated technological solution and bring it to the market, you need a multidisciplinary team approach. Can you tell us more about your team set-up, and the key success factors to make it work?
As our technology combines multiple domains from the hardware, software to data analysis and agronomy, we’ve been forced to have a very much multidisciplinary team from the very beginning. The core criteria for our team that we are looking for outside the professional skills are independent thinking and the ability to take initiative, but also being an effective team player. In a startup you always combine several functions and roles, and open-minded personality and self-disciplinary approach play an important role for creating a successful company culture. Another important team aspect is to have the right mix between scientific and commercially-minded people.


 You are an alumni of the Swisscom StartUp Challenge. Would you participate again?
Sure, it was a very valuable and insightful experience, that you can’t miss being a young startup. We benefited a lot from this challenge, critical evaluation and kind support of great people, involved in this initiative, including Penny Schiffer, Beat Schillig and other business-minded people. Without any hesitation, we would repeat this experience.


As a winner of the challenge, you were flying to Silicon Valley for one week. What was your most stunning experience there?
Throughout the week, we had somewhat around 15 meetings with venture capitalists, industry experts, business advisors, competitors and potential customers. It’s a unique experience to meet the whole spectrum of investors, from seed investors to multi-million crazy investors. We have been fully exposed to the Silicon Valley environment and realized that the most important factor of a startup’s success, is the ability to quickly scale a product / services to a global level. While a state-of-the-art technology provides a competitive advantage, focus on the sales and distribution plays a major role. And the concept of the unicorns is all about the ability to get a significant market share and traction in a short period of time.


A pick-me up for young founders: why would you found Gamaya again? 

  • Fascinating and challenging journey with every day full of new contacts, challenges, and tasks.
  • Ability to be a decision-maker with a 100% responsibility for your decisions.
  • Ambitious goal to build a sustainable $bn business from scratch.
  • Possibility to meet top-notch professionals, entrepreneurs and very experienced people.
  • Fast learning path that combines different functions, roles, responsibilities and taks.


Eager to take your startup a big step forward? Apply now for the Swisscom StartUp Challenge 2016. Application Deadline is May 15.