Ellie Symes Announced As CEWiT Summit Plenary Speaker
By Ellen Glover
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Ellie Symes, a part-time IU grad student and CEO of Bee Corp., will be the Plenary Speaker at this year’s CEWiT Summit, where she will talk about her success as an entrepreneur in the tech industry, particularly as it pertains to honeybee hives.
Bee Corp., which was conceive on IU’s campus when Symes was an undergraduate here, seeks to help beekeepers maintain healthy hives through data-driven technology. The company has four full-time employees, including Symes, four part-time employees, a Board of Directors and an Advisory Board.
Despite her success in the industry, Symes hadn’t always been interested in beekeeping. It all started about six years ago, the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, when she was home for the summer. She googled possible environmental volunteer opportunities and found a bee keeper, Dave Noble out of Columbus, Ohio, who needed help.
I fell in love with it on the first day,” remembers Symes. “Bees were just starting to be talked about in the news but it hadn’t made national news or anything. I would get a lot of response from friends if I would post something on Instagram, so I figured others might be interested in helping out.”
So, at the start of her sophomore year, Symes applied for a grant at the Hutton Honors College. When she earned the money, she kicked off what became the first student-run beehives at IU.
The following year, she pitched her idea in the Kelley School as the subject of a business consulting assignment. There, she met Simon Kuntz and Wyatt Wells, who are now co-founders of the company, working full-time at Bee Corp. as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, respectfully.
The three friends formed the Beekeeping Club at IU, dedicated to making the campus pollinator-friendly. The group had a lot of success and attention and wound up drawing more than 300 members.
Soon, the club got so much attention that Symes was invited to speak at the IU Foundation Board of Directors meeting in October of 2015.
After the presentation, some of the board members pulled me aside and said ‘what you have isgreat, but we want you to dream even bigger,’” says Symes.
So, Symes turned her focus towards one of the beekeeping industry’s most glaring problems: the need for quantifiable data. She and her team refined their business model and developed beekeeping technology that would help combat colony decline with data collection and analysis. They submitted their plan to IU’s BEST (Business Entrepreneurs in Science & Technology) Competition in spring of 2016 as the first Benefit Corporation to enter ever. They were awarded $100,000.
“That’s when I knew that I had something really special here,” says Symes. “ I knew I would go full-time after graduation.”
Now, Bee Corp. has relationships with beekeepers in seven states and makes two products, the QGPS, which prevents hive theft, and the Queen’s Guard Hive Alert System, which tracks he queen’s health in the hive. The data is collected from these trackers and goes to the central database through the Amazon Web Services Cloud. It is then processed through a python-based algorithm. If there is an issue, the bee keeper is alerted and can quickly intervene. More info can be found here.
Symes says there is other similar technology on the market but few are doing cell transmission and none tell he beekeepers what the data actually means.
“Analytics can be difficult,” explains Symes. “So we wanted to make it so it was understandable, so they don’t have to be data scientists to maintain their hives.”
Symes believes that tech and data should be accessible to everyone, and that is what she is trying to achieve at Bee Corp.
“There is a lot of talk about getting every inch of this country connected, that applies to industries as well,” says Symes. “We need honey bees for food, so there’s no reason the agricultural industry should be left way behind. We’re never going to stop needing food, so we’ve got to advance.”
Although she has a background in math and stats and a strong aptitude for analytics, a lot of the technological aspects of these products required Symes to take control and educate herself. Although, she says she still has a lot to learn.
“I still don’t know how to code,” Symes admits. “But that’s okay.”Symes attributes a lot of her success and her will to succeed to her mother, whose job required they travel from state to state in order to help struggling factories by improving the quality of work for their employees. She would usually spend time at one factory for a couple of years and then either be relocated or poached by another company once the job was done, causing the family to move around a lot.
“I saw how important it was for me to have a mother set that kind of example for me,” says Symes. “She taught me to never second guess my place within any industry. It can’t be said enough how important it is to have children have those examples to look up to.”
However, Symes says being a woman can make her leadership position within the industry difficult. While the experience has been great in the tech world, Symes says it hasn’t been so great on the beekeeping side of things. There will be sexist comments on social media or someone will say something rude at a conference or event, but Symes says she tries to stay above it and not focus so much on her gender.
“In my experience I’ve never thought, as I’m doing something, I am I doing this as a woman, no I am doing this as Ellie,” explains Symes. “I never had that filter on. It’s kind of been something I’ve realized over time. However, when it has slapped me in the face, it’s been very hard. But over time I’ve worked on my responses. I don’t laugh it off. When I get comments, like one time I was asked if I was married to one of my co-founders. When I get asked stuff like that I never laugh it off, because I’m worried I’ll perpetuate the problem. I assert myself, I stand my ground.”
Symes also finds that just powering through has made her more confident in the male-driven industries that she is a part of.
“I find that it’s helpful just to surge through. It’s helpful not to think and worry about how I will be perceived as a woman. I’m more worried about how I will be perceived in other ways, like as an IU student or a leader of a tech company. I don’t know if that’s helpful or even possible for some people, though.”
She’s also found that having both female and male allies has helped her tremendously.
“Women are easy allies, so have a lot of wonderful women allies,” says Symes. “My male allies impress me all the time. If I’m at an event and someone says something, my co-founders will step in and divert the focus. I’ve talked to them a lot about the issues I’ve had to face, so they know to do this. They take whatever chance they get to support me as a woman.”
“Seek men out to be allies,” advises Symes. “Don’t be afraid to talk to them about it. It’s been a great experience for me because it has meant that I don’t have to deal with it internally anymore. I have support.”
Now that Bee Corp. is on the up-and-up, Symes has big plans for the future. They were just awarded an SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation, so they are hoping to put that towards developing more technology to help beekeepers maintain control over their hives. In the long-run, Symes hopes her company will have a lasting effect on the lives of honeybees.
“I hope to change the conversation,” says Symes. “I’d like it to go from ‘have they solved the problem yet?’ to ‘look how much the industry has grown!’”
Ellie Symes will be speaking at IU on March 24 in the Cedar Hall Auditorium at 9:30am. Registration for the CEWiT Summit is required. (Find more information about the CEWiT Summit at go.iu.edu/cewitsummit.