An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Eric Taipale (founder and CTO) of Sentera, which was honored in our:
- 2023 Best Tech Startups in Minnesota
- 2023 Best Tech Startups in St. Paul
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in St. Paul
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Minnesota
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Minnesota
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Minneapolis
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Minnesota
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Minneapolis
Tell us the origin story of Sentera – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
There are really two origin stories. Our founding team was a small but successful team working happily inside of a very large company. The company decided to relocate the physical operations of our business unit, and none of us wanted to move. So the very pragmatic origin story was that we needed jobs and really wanted to find a way to keep working together! The more inspiring (and still true story) is that the depth of knowledge and experience we had in remote sensing, AI, IoT, and drones were very unique at a time when these technologies were just becoming commercially viable. We had some limited experience with natural sciences and agriculture in the past, and knew that lack of good supporting data was a huge barrier when growers were trying to make critical financial and on-field management decisions. We believed we could use the technologies we understood well to create products that could help solve this fundamental data scarcity problem for our customers.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Raising capital is really difficult. Our team was technically brilliant and understood how to build product, but I certainly did not understand how to communicate the potential value of our business to an investor. Looking back, I owe a huge debt to the CFO as our first investor and the investment bankers who helped us raise our first venture round. They taught me and our team how to think about our business and tell its story differently. Other than a great idea, having smart, patient, and trustworthy partners that know the capital markets is essential. Not every entrepreneur needs outside capital, but we did, and it was our greatest challenge in the early days.
What does the future hold for Sentera?
We are in such a great position. Our day 1 problem to solve was data scarcity for our customers. That’s really what we’re still doing, but the complexity of the data insights we can produce, the accumulated volume of high-quality data, and our data science and deep learning portfolio have all increased dramatically. We’re trusted to help inform the decisions that everyone from a grower in Minnesota to a Fortune 50 company makes regarding their most important assets. The platform engine we’ve built to accomplish that helps us do it quickly and efficiently, and there is no limit in sight to where the underlying technologies can take Sentera and its customers.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in St. Paul?
I was born in St. Paul. I’ve lived here, lived other places, and then moved back to Minnesota. The tech scene reflects the character of the city. It does not lack for talent, ambition, or drive, and the Twin Cities is a large and wealthy metro area with a major research university sitting right in the middle. All of the ingredients are there, yet the ecosystem of startups, funders, banks, advisors, and so on is smaller and less aggressive than it is in some smaller cities. My focus is on growing one startup, and St. Paul has been a great place to do it. I don’t pretend to know what thing or things would provide the most benefit to a broader innovation network, but I do think it’s essential that our area remains an attractive place for the best minds to develop and commercialize their best ideas.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I’ll limit my advice to technology entrepreneurs: Build an outstanding team. Technology, finance, operations, sales, and marketing have to be done well, and very few individuals are experts in more than 2 or 3 of these areas. Learn from customer feedback, especially negative feedback. Capture the value the business creates, but don’t be greedy – some of your earliest customers are taking on nearly as much risk in working with you as you are in doing a startup. Reward those that produce, not those that generate the highest word count in meetings. It’s important to abandon bad ideas, but it’s not always smart to abandon great ideas if the execution is bad but can be fixed. Know the difference. Be realistic about capital requirements and the timeline for achieving business objectives – things tend to take longer and cost more than originally thought!