Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. In its fourth year, this online competition awards cash prizes to early-stage startups to develop a solution that drives economic development or solves a social or environmental problem.
We are excited for you to learn more about the 2020 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions. I recently interviewed the founder and CEO of Preemar, Alejandro Valdés Martínez, winner of a Third Runner-Up $10,000 USD prize.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Alejandro: We are solving the problem of production losses in the aquaculture industry, which amounts to 6 billion dollars each year. These production losses happen because of variations in water quality, which are not detected by the aquaculture farmers. If these water quality variations are not immediately detected and corrected, aquaculture organisms get stressed, and their immune system weakens. These variations allow pathogens in the water to infect aquaculture organisms like fish, shrimp, oysters, etc., leading to disease, killing the aquaculture organism. At Preemar, we developed a device called Pro-viden, a real-time monitoring system of water quality, which allows the farmer to prevent diseases and increase his production.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Alejandro: One of our co-founders, Andrea Morales, has a background in marine biology. She worked with aquaculture farmers, and she saw how they had significant production losses, and sometimes 50-60 percent of their production was lost. Sometimes, the farmers didn’t even know what had happened because they didn’t have this ability to measure water quality continuously. When Andrea told us about this problem, we started visiting aquaculture farms and interviewing farmers. We saw how big this problem was in Mexico, Latin America, and other parts of the world. We got to the root cause of the problem: aquaculture farmers did not have a tool to detect sudden water quality variations that can lead to the production losses. That is how we started working on Pro-viden.
Can you explain how the solution works?
Alejandro: The technology we use is the Internet of Things (IoT) combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Our device is like a buoy that is placed in the water, and it moves autonomously. It performs measurements of pH, oxygen, temperature, and all the water parameters essential to aquaculture. This information is continuously measured [and] stored in our database, so the aquaculture farmer can access this information in real-time and remotely through our web platform and our mobile application. The aquaculture farmer can access the data through graphs, detailed reports, and preventive alerts whenever a risk is detected. We also have a predictive model that tells the farmer what to expect in the future, [based on] the current measurements and the historic measurements that we have, helping to prevent diseases and [finding] ways to improve production.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Alejandro: What we experienced immediately is that it gave us exposure to possible clients. We have been sharing the announcement on social media, which has given us some exposure. The monetary prize in this current situation will help us a lot because we have been struggling to keep up with operations over the past few months. With the exposure we are getting, I hope we will take advantage of new opportunities to boost our sales.
Do you know what you will use the prize money for specifically?
Alejandro: We launched our product this year, so our primary focus is growing sales here in Mexico, Latin America, and North America. We are investing about 35 percent into marketing, and we’re also investing 20-30 percent into salaries to help keep operations going. The other 30-35 percent [is] invested in product development, so we’re continually improving our system’s hardware and software.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Alejandro: It has been interesting because farmers are looking into more automated technologies. We have been getting more interest in our technology. However, there is still this other side of things, where farmers are also thinking about reducing production costs, and they have been a little bit more cautious about their investments. But I believe in the long-term. Interest in automation from the aquaculture industry will grow.
Another big change that happened since the pandemic is that national and international conferences, events, and forums cannot be held in-person. The aquaculture industry is transforming, in the sense that they are making connections virtually. So for a startup like us, that has been good because, before, we had to invest in travel to go to conferences. Now, we can attend them online without the time and cost of getting there.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Alejandro: Since I was a kid, I always wanted to have my own business. When I started university, I lost track of that dream. I started working in the automotive industry as a quality engineer. While in that role, I wasn’t satisfied, and I wanted to have a bigger impact on what I was doing. I decided to go back to pursuing this dream of having my own business. And that led me to go to an innovation center here in Mexico, where I met my co-founders. We all had this great idea of creating something that could impact people’s lives in our communities.
What is the best piece of advice you received about starting your social enterprise?
Alejandro: As first-time entrepreneurs, we have been getting some great advice. One piece of advice that changed our mindset was around the idea of a “unicorn” startup (like Facebook) where you have one big opportunity that takes you to the moon. In reality, most companies don’t get one big chance, but instead, they work hard every day and keep getting good results. And an accumulation of good results will take you to where you want to go. You need to know that persistent, small efforts will make a difference in the future, and that mentality has kept us on track.
Do you have any advice for next year’s applicants?
Alejandro: Applying as first-time entrepreneurs helped us understand where we’re going, how we’re doing it, and what we could do better. It is a big step to see your plans written down and think, “how can I improve that?” If you make it to the finals and get exposure, that will help you as well. And of course, if you are one of the winners, then that experience is motivating. I encourage everyone who’s thinking about applying to apply and take advantage of this process.
What job would you be doing if you didn’t do this?
Alejandro: I think I would be trying to solve another issue in aquaculture or the agriculture industry. My passion is working on a startup, and I would be trying to make a significant impact.
What is your favorite book and why?
Alejandro: My favorite book is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. That book has impacted me the most because I could see how I could apply these principles to my life. I recommend it a lot to everyone I know. I think it can change the paradigms that we have, and using the book’s principles can help us improve our own life.
What is your favorite activity when you are not working?
Alejandro: Reading is an activity that I enjoy a lot. I am also spending time with my girlfriend. Right now, we have to stay home during the pandemic. It is great to be with her instead of being home alone, so I really enjoy spending time with her.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winning team!