The story of how the four co-founders of Picketa Systems formed the AgTech company as their capstone project at UNB’s Faculty of Engineering makes for a pretty interesting tale. The fact that the team of four achieved this when the University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus was closed due to the pandemic makes it astonishing.
The startup’s co-founders – Xavier Hébert-Couturier, Maxime Dumont, Dominic Levesque, and Zachary Andersen – were engineering students from various parts of New Brunswick, and had to complete their capstone project, a special assignment to bring together multi-disciplinary components to develop a product. UNB is different from other universities because its J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship, known as TME, allows students to propose their own projects and develop them into companies.
Once the group joined forces, they realized that half the team grew up on farms. Levesque was a fifth-generation potato farmer and Dumont had grown up on a dairy farm. They met at the Leveque family farm, assessed the most-pressing problems facing potato farmers today, and came up with their idea: they would produce a device to assess the nutrients in plants and soil in real-time to help farmers and agronomists know precisely how much fertilizer they should use.
During the Pandemic
Like all founders, they faced the challenges of designing a product that could find a market. Given the current state of our world, they faced an extra complication: they were working during the pandemic and each of the team’s members were working remotely from home. Sometimes, they would go more than a month without meeting in person.
“We had to get real comfortable with online video,” Hébert-Couturier, now the company’s CEO, said in an interview. “We started in September 2020, so it was already a couple of months into the pandemic. We did a lot of customer discovery and one good thing was we could talk to people in Ontario and Quebec. Everyone at that time was online and bored, so we got a lot of meetings with different people.”
Working with their instructor, Dr. Kush Bubbar, the quartet of entrepreneurs researched the problem, the market, and the science behind their device. The result was Picketa Systems, one of the latest startups produced by the ecosystem within UNB’s TME program.
Demand for the startup support and training programs offered by TME grew substantially in 2021, Dr. Dhirendra Shukla, the Centre’s Chair, told Entrevestor in an interview.
The number of applications TME received for its accelerator and incubator programs, which includes its Summer Institute and Energia Ventures accelerator, has grown from about 150 per cohort to more than 200, he said.
For the first time, Energia ran two cohorts in 2021. (One of the participants in the first cohort of 2021 was Picketa Systems, during which time the team ran paid pilot projects at nine New Brunswick farms.)
Energia Applications Rose
Even with the new, semi-annual schedule, Shukla said the Energia team still found it a challenge to meet the demand as the number of applications actually grew. “I don’t think we’ve solved it,” he joked.
Shukla also said the shift to remote work culture has made it more feasible for many of the TME Centre’s startups to fundraise, particularly from backers outside the region. This shift has allowed accelerator management to enlist the expertise of instructors who could not participate if they needed to be physically present at the university’s Fredericton campus.
He believes that with the world focused on COVID, “all this excitement and energy around startups has, in a way, taken a little bit of a backseat. What I can tell you is, in terms of fundraising, our startups are doing well. They are really punching above their weight.”
Like many post-secondary institutions, UNB spent the 2020-2021 academic year relying on remote learning, with its buildings in Fredericton largely shuttered. Shukla said that, for an innovation hub that has historically differentiated itself partly through its expertise in engineering and physical technology, transitioning to digital represented a stumbling block.
Shukla’s team found strategies to address many of the drawbacks to online learning, such as encouraging startups to rely on 3D printing or virtual prototyping where possible.
“We were able to find ways to work around some of those elements,” he said. “We were able to be creative. We said, ‘… Let's think about how we can still help your business to move forward.’”
The result was that startup founders’ interest in the TME Centre’s programs stayed high even during the depths of the pandemic.
During the federal and provincial governments’ protracted travel bans, visa complications meant that many of the applicant companies ultimately could not participate. The same virtual format that presented challenges for laboratory and prototyping work has made it possible for Shukla’s team to continue delivering its programming even to startups not physically in New Brunswick.
The second Energia Ventures cohort, which held its demo day Dec. 10, 2021, included startups from Spain, India, Poland and Canada.
Holding the accelerators remotely also meant that Shukla’s team could tap experts such as the University of Ottawa’s Jonathon Calof, who specializes in competitive intelligence and business analytics. Calof is immunocompromised because he was being treated for leukemia. He could not have attended Energia in person for safety reasons, but he was able to mentor Energia’s startups remotely, from his hospital bed for part of the time.
Shukla also believes that many of the startups emerging from UNB have been made more resilient by the pandemic. He said the unusual economic environment forced them to become more capitally efficient and allowed them to access far-away investors who would otherwise only back founders they could meet in person.
“There are people who would have never considered investing until they met the founders and did their due diligence in person,” said Shukla. “What we saw was that people were doing their due diligence online, having their investment rounds online. Virtual has become the new norm.”
“Entrepreneurs are very, very resilient. They saw what was happening and they adapted. … Entrepreneurs are fighters. That’s why I love being around them.”
The co-founders of Picketa Systems credit UNB’s TME program with helping them get to a point where they are about to close their first round of investment. A landmark in their development was entering the Energia accelerator as soon as classes ended last school year.
“Right after we graduated, [entering Energia] was something that helped us in moving on from a school project to a company,” said Dumont. “Of all the things we’ve done, that was something that was really pivotal for us.”
About the University of New Brunswick
The University of New Brunswick is Canada's oldest English-language university. Founded in 1785, the multi-campus institution has a rich history and a dynamic focus on innovation, experiential learning and entrepreneurship. UNB has more than 10,500 students from over 100 countries enrolled in degree-credit courses on its campuses, online and at partner institutions around the world, as well as thousands of continuing education learners. As a comprehensive university, UNB is home to substantial research expertise in many disciplines. Its faculty and staff have collaborated extensively with public and private sector leaders to advance research and foster innovation.