MBA Program: Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School

Industry: Freight rail; transportation; logistics; supply chain

Founding Student Name(s): Byron Porter

Brief Description of Solution: Wireless sensor system for railcars providing GPS tracking and predictive maintenance.

Funding Dollars: $525,000

What led you to launch this venture? As a former rail operations manager at a major agriculture and food company, I experienced both the positive and negative effects of rail transportation on our business. The efficiency and speed that we could load out 100-car-unit grain trains allowed us to perform at our best. Yet, it always amazed me that chronic issues such as erratic railcar deliveries and retrievals—which had a massive influence on how we operated our plant—were seen as unchangeable and a normal part of doing business. Being an engineer, I couldn’t accept this.

At business school, I decided to explore entrepreneurship and work on developing new technology. This led me to a Silicon Valley conference focused on the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and blockchain. Here, I got up to speed with some of the latest advancements in this technology. Once I knew what the technology could do, a wave of ideas came to me, including several centered on freight rail operations. I spent a few weeks sifting through and evaluating them until I decided to focus on rail.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Securing pilot tests for our product with two excellent customers, both of which have great reputations for being technology pioneers and are well-respected in the industry.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture?

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I’ve thought a lot about this. You certainly don’t need an MBA to start a company and I never intended to start a company when I started business school. There are three key takeaways that you get from an MBA that are difficult to find elsewhere: the alumni network, faculty, and the classes.

Being able to have a connection with thousands of alumni opens so many doors to test drive a business idea or find a sales lead. This was key during the first few months after I started the business, when I was cold-calling and emailing hundreds of people. Once I had a solid idea, the faculty and courses I took at WashU helped me avoid many pitfalls and mistakes. To this day, I keep in touch with several faculty members and bounce ideas off them. One even invested in the business!

Startup survival rates are not good and I feel I’ve put our company in the best position possible to succeed because of my MBA at WashU.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I left my last job to get an MBA because I wanted to run a business, but I never thought I would actually start that business. When I started business school, I was hoping to land a spot as a general manager at an industrial company like Emerson or GE.

A few weeks before I started school, I had a conversation with a good friend who had spent 15-plus years at GE and was moving to a new position as the COO of an ag tech startup. That conversation helped me to see the work I enjoyed the most was entrepreneurial—exploring new technology and implementing it to solve a problem. After talking with him, I decided to get involved in entrepreneurship.

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Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Tough one: they’ve all shaped my thinking. Managerial Economics and Competitive Industry Analysis have both been incredibly valuable as they’ve given me the tools to understand an industry’s market dynamics and to create a successful strategy for market entry.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? The faculty at WashU was one of the deciding factors in my decision to attend there. Many of them had a significant impact on me and my thinking, but two who have helped the most are my two entrepreneurship professors: Cliff Holekamp and Doug Villhard. The best advice I’ve received since I started the business has come from operators like Cliff and Doug. Cliff was the one who suggested I attend a conference like the one where I found my idea.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? Freight rail is pretty resilient and a critical part of the supply chain, so it hasn’t impacted the company or our outlook much. Our pilot customers are still committed and excited and we have a healthy pipeline of companies interested in our technology. The biggest challenge has been the inability to travel to attend conferences and meet with prospective customers.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Hum’s mission is to integrate the supply chain. Connecting railcars is the first step in a long plan to build an autonomous, integrated supply chain that delivers goods just as a customer needs them and optimizes performance of the supply chain network.

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