Countries away, helping farmers

A company founded by University alumni is targeting water scarcity and improving agricultural practices in India.

Parker Lemke

It’s already taken root in India’s agricultural market, but now an irrigation distribution company founded by University of Minnesota alumni will use international funding to fertilize its growth.

A panel of development agencies from three countries nominated MyRain last month as one of 17 projects that will receive up to $3 million from an international program aimed at combating global water scarcity.

MyRain sells irrigation systems to retailers, who in turn market them to small-plot farmers in India, CEO and co-founder Steele Lorenz said.

The company’s drip irrigation systems can benefit Indian farmers more than traditional methods of field flooding, said Lorenz, who is a 2010 entrepreneurship and marketing graduate from the Carlson School of Management.

“The water is typically either standing and evaporating or runs off,” Lorenz said. “A very limited amount actually ends up producing calories in foodstuff.”

Drip irrigation, on the other hand, distributes water directly to crop roots through a network of pipes and tubes, he said, and can increase both crop yield and water efficiency.

But obstacles have impeded the system’s widespread adoption in India, he said.

“Many small retailers don’t have the time or can’t take the time to learn about the product,” Lorenz said.

In September, judges selected MyRain out of 520 applicants from over 90 countries to receive between $100,000 and $500,000 to expand its mobile application, which simplifies the installment of efficient irrigation systems for Indian farmers, Lorenz said.

Rainmaker, the mobile app, simplifies the process for India’s agricultural retailers by automatically calculating custom blueprints using data on field size, cropping patterns and other factors.

“With the blueprint and the list of parts, any local plumber can put the irrigation system together,” Lorenz said.

U origins, ties

Although it is focused on a market located several time zones away, MyRain originally sprouted from a campus entrepreneurship program.

Lorenz and fellow co-founder and alumnus Sri Latha Ganti developed their initial idea in a University course.

The class was offered by Acara, an Institute on the Environment program that seeks to develop leaders with an eye for balancing finance with solutions for societal and environmental challenges, Acara co-founder Fred Rose said.

“[Lorenz and Ganti] are a great example of somebody who is really doing both of those,” Rose said. “Sri obviously is from India, and so she has a special affinity for helping that country — but both of them have a strong calling to make an impact.”

Since MyRain launched in 2012, the University has maintained strong ties with the company, Rose said, by informally mentoring Lorenz and Ganti and by connecting them with investors.

At the same time, MyRain has provided learning experiences of its own, including a number of internships for students from civil engineering and management backgrounds.

Nathan Shrader, a management information systems and supply chain operations senior, is part of a three-person team of interns working for MyRain this semester.

“What I like about it is that it really helps a lot of people,” Shrader said.

Over winter break, Shrader will travel to India with his team members to help develop new marketing strategies for the company.

“I’m just excited to expand my horizons and learn how other cultures operate,” Shrader said. “Communication across borders and culture is what will change the world.”