Dr Anastasia Volkova is the CEO and Co-founder of FluroSat, an agtech business that uses drone and satellite data to inform agronomists around the world on how to maximise their crops. She has been recognised as one of the BBC’s Top 100 women globally, is on the MIT 35 under 35 list and has worked on projects with NASA robots to managing teams for UEFA.
We sat down with Dr Volkova to document her fascinating career and advice for budding entrepreneurs.
Why did you choose to pursue aerospace engineering?
People ask me as if this was precisely calculated – it hasn’t been.
As a young girl, I dreamt of being a superhero and flying. So when I was applying to do a bachelors, the university in Kiev that I went to offered the bachelors in aerospace and it was in English, so you would effectively also get a diploma in English.
The major was to do with control systems. We would build super basic computer programs and this translated well into the computer systems approach to aviation. It also had a huge part of aircraft navigation in it.
You’ve worked and studied all over the world. Is this also an accident or something you planned?
This was a lot more thought out. I always wanted to be involved in international projects so I’d chosen the degree that gave me international exposure. So I was seeking international exposure.
I had a scholarship from a German language centre, a scholarship to help me do a Masters in Poland and work experience in the US, and it spiralled out from there.
I like the idea of being a global citizen.
Why were you so interested in international projects?
I have this idea that if you are someone from a small town or a society that has particular views that you feel are different to yours, it feels like you have to physically leave your place to meet more people like you.
This way you can build upon your ideas and meet like-minded people to connect with. Now this is more accessible through the internet, but having the physical presence and space where you can find like-minded people is something you can actively seek.
You design that environment for yourself and this is what I’m passionate about.
Why did you then go into entrepreneurship?
I think entrepreneurship is something you explore when you feel like you have an edge in tech or innovation or a knack for a thing you want to leverage. Before studying my doctorate, I’d been involved with startups. It’s a compelling pathway and I wanted to work on problems that excited me and be in a no-nonsense environment.
Did you have any initial hesitations?
I think thoughts that pass through your mind include the fact that you’re investing time, money and resources into something that’s new and unproven. It’s an idea that needs to be proven.
As an entrepreneur, you need to balance optimism with reality and it’s something that people need to learn for themselves. I am good with it now but I hope we can normalise this for people who are starting.
It’s something that everyone goes through. The best thing to do is to talk to people who’ve recently gone through the same thing. Mentorship, advice and support normalises this uncertainty for people who want to be entrepreneurs.
Tell us a little about FluroSat
Flurosat is an agtech company that provides decision support and analytics to crop advisers and agronomists. We translate the complicated world of data – data from tractors, soil, water, satellite images, science – and combine it together. So we run models to see what potential the crop is currently doing and how to maximise its potential.
Our mission is to bring sustainable agriculture and science-based agronomy to all food and fibre production. And we are just getting started.
What were the biggest challenges setting it up?
The challenge is that there is no one textbook to learn from. Business is constant learning. Every company is on its own journey.
You need to constantly learn and grow. The markets are always changing, the climate is changing and you need to continuously innovate. I think that’s the biggest challenge – the job reinvents itself every month.
What was the transition from aerospace to agronomy like?
We decided to take a data source that I knew how to work with, which was satellite data and earth observation, and applied it to agriculture.
When it came to agronomy, I really wanted to learn: how were decisions made, what were people looking for, what sources do agronomists see as trustworthy, how could we help them, how could we serve crop advisers and farmers.
Of course it was daunting at times but I was always honest with myself – I was a technologist who knew digital products and I’ve not worked as a professional agronomist.
Where do you see yourself and FluroSat in five years?
I definitely look at it with a lot of hope at the end of 2020 and whilst making plans for 2021. I really want to shift agriculture from being an input/output, commodity-based industry to being justly recognised as an ecosystem for managing landscapes and looking after land and water.
What advice would you give to people starting out as entrepreneurs?
Spend time with your customers. Just shadowing them can make the lives of entrepreneurs so much easier.
The second thing is it’s very important to continuously seek competition. You need to know what you’re against. In the eyes of the customer, your unique value proposition is your competitive value.
No one wants to work for a year and discover that there’s a company on the other side of the world that has already built your product and will scale into your market. The only way to prevent that is to do your research, understand the competition and not claim that you don’t have competition.