A Transformational Experience: How My Fellowship Changed My Career Trajectory From Academia to Entrepreneurship

Hamid Jafarbiglu with drone.

Hamid Jafarbiglu posing with one of the drones he uses for agricultural imaging.

I have studied and worked with agricultural machinery, precision agriculture, remote sensing, aerial image processing, and other digital agriculture practices throughout my academic career. My passion for advancing technologies that benefit growers and enable them to make informed decisions about their crops led me to UC Davis, where I have worked with the Digital Ag Lab as a Ph.D. student since 2019. I have had the opportunity to work on many incredible projects and co-found Kobin, a data analytics company that helps increase yield, reduce costs, and support sustainable growing practices. The culmination of all my experiences drove me to want to learn more about innovation in the food system. I applied for the Innovator Fellowship with the Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH) for an opportunity to work alongside a venture capital firm and gain valuable real-world insights from industry professionals, to see how startups are evaluated, and what makes them successful (or not).

During my fellowship I collaborated with the GFRP (Generation Food Rural Partners) team, a fund of BIV (Big Idea Ventures) focusing on food, protein, and agricultural technologies. GFRP concentrates on identifying promising university-developed intellectual properties (IP), thoroughly scrutinizing them, and if they show potential for profitability, the team takes the initiative forward and establishes a dedicated company. Over my six-month fellowship, I was engaged with the formation of four companies, and I actively contributed to several of these ventures, with technical due diligence, collecting other and complementary IPs, gathering market data and landscape information, feasibility assessment, etc. This extremely valuable experience offered a perspective entirely distinct from academia. I realized that the pace of activities and developments in the venture world is so fast (compared to the academic environment and even the non-venture businesses I’ve experienced) and meanwhile a good amount of time is spent on short-term and long-term plannings and strategies, with regular updates and pivots. I also witnessed expansion of relationships, and learned and practiced skills like persuasion, negotiation, and navigating diverse viewpoints.

This fellowship profoundly influenced my career trajectory, prompting me to expand my horizons beyond the realm of research and academia. It helped to shift my mindset to always have the big picture in mind when looking for solutions and gave me the ability to look for and identify the root problems that are solvable.

Hamid and Bill at 2023 IIFH Partner Summit

Hamid Jafarbiglu and Bill Arnold attending the 2023 IIFH Partner Summit at UC Davis

Additionally, I gained a wealth of experience that I will apply to the company I co-founded. My PI, Dr. Alireza Pourreza, and I were working on Kobin before I joined this fellowship and the experiences of this fellowship brought to light previously overlooked aspects of our work. For example, I learned that the costumer must be the focal point for any product, idea, or company. Neglecting this crucial aspect could result in creating something that fails to resonate with potential customers.

While working with GFRP, I had the opportunity to participate in and contribute to a few of their team fundraising meetings, which proved to be a valuable experience for me. I learned that authentic de-risking strategies are one of the key points in persuading other investors to participate or invest in a project. For instance, diversifying with multiple complementary IPs, rather than relying solely on one single IP, mitigates the investment risk. Additionally, finding individuals with the capacity and skills to establish a company from scratch and get in running in a short time is critical step that requires hours of searching and interviewing candidates.

I participated in numerous hiring interviews, listening to many potential Chief Executive Officers and Chief Science Officers articulate their plan and strategy for the various types of companies at GFRP. It was an invaluable experience to see different perspectives applied to the same problem with step-by-step development strategies. During these interviews, I learned exactly how patents and IPs transform into a full-fledged company.

Another aspect of my fellowship at GFRP was meeting other business founders and startups owners. Not only did this experience deepen my understanding of the entrepreneurial landscape, but it also significantly expanded my professional network. Exposure to these real-world scenarios has been instrumental in shaping my outlook and aspirations beyond the limits of academic pursuits. I now feel much more confident and am grateful for this opportunity and excited for a future filled with great opportunities.

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