Wired In: Chris Harbourt

Wired In: Chris Harbourt

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet CHRIS HARBOURT, managing partner at Anther Group, a company that does early-stage direct involvement and investment in new startups. He also teaches in the College of Engineering Technology Entrepreneurship Center and College of ACES at the University of Illinois. His interests include helping others create successful startups and growing existing companies like AirScout, which operates manned aircraft for agricultural scouting.

You're also director of business development at MajiPump, which makes a low-cost reliable water pump for African, Asian and South American smallholder farmers. What motivated you to help farmers around the world?

I was motivated by the company's founder, Brian Lilly, and his passion for sustainable product businesses in Africa. Also, the opportunity to help the smallholder farmer (1 to 2 acres typically) improve the likelihood that they can bring their crop to market each season with the help of this pump.

Do the pumps work on solar power?

Yes, just plug the pumps directly into a solar panel with no batteries, which is far more environmentally responsible. We find so many community wells in Africa littered with aging lead-acid batteries abandoned in place, that is never a good thing to see. So many others with good intentions have created some severe unintended consequences. We are sticklers, too, that these pumps just plain work; a failure could mean a complete loss of a family's annual income.

You co-founded Agrible and started the local office for Waterborne Environmental. What inspired you to create and grow these businesses, and then leave them?

I'm a driven person and feel it is the burden of each of us to do what we can to leave our communities better than we found them. I have a set of talents that help me start and grow early stage businesses and I'm wired to where it's OK leaving them too. It's hard to leave things and there are always complexities, but if you don't leave you can't work on what's next!

You challenge those around you to imagine what is possible. Is anything impossible? Have any of your startups ever failed?

If you are actively working on a startup, it fails every single day; your job as an entrepreneur is to deal with the failures and pivot the assets and talents of the teams around you to some success. Sometimes the businesses work and sometimes they do not, but you have to get comfortable with a high level of risk and the constant unknowns. As a leader it's important to earnestly help the team around you stay confident and motivated when it looks impossible. Confidence not arrogance and self-awareness are keys.

In your spare time, you like to repair, drive, and collect old cars, like 100+ year old antique Stanley Steam cars and Ford model Ts. How do you find these cars in the first place?

It sounds crazy, but the cars find me, there is a story behind each, The 1919 Stanley we have was a long search and a family vacation to California to see the car and decide if it was right. Some are family originals like a 1955 Ford Thunderbird that my grandma bought new. Grandma had class and style! I fixed and drove that car to high school. I've been lucky enough hold onto most of them, regretting everything car related that I've ever sold. And how many do you have? We have about 20 scattered in a few sheds, all of them drive, it's a great way to involve the family since everyone likes to go get ice-cream in a cool car.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

The technical innovation is maybe one-fifth of the startup and the other four-fifths are people, so start building a network around you remembering that relationships go two ways and kindness is always rewarded. There are a lot of meanies out there; just be self-aware enough to know what you are getting into and don't be surprised when that little voice inside that you may have ignored says "I told you so." Trust the little voice.

Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?

A friend and I started a company right out of grad school and we moved away from Champaign to Washington D.C. New place, new people, new costs ... it was more than the company could carry. Champaign is a great place to grow a startup; the Research Park staff and the EnterpriseWorks is a real gem. Startups need every advantage possible, it's best to stay with a community that cares.


Do you have interests in social media? Yes, I love the communities social media builds, big fan of Instagram and LinkedIn.

Are your startups on any of them? Yes, AirScout, Anther, Hatch Ag, Agrible, TEC and ACES all post regularly to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Favorite app: I'm a visual person and like Instagram, so many great pictures and communities there around cars and agriculture.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? "The Third Wave" by Steve Case and "Creative People Must be Stopped" by David Owens.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Apple Watch.

Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Howard Hughes, Glenn Curtiss and Jacques Cousteau. I can't decide on just one; they were all amazingly creative and passionate.