Wired In: Kaustubh Bhalerao

Wired In: Kaustubh Bhalerao

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet Kaustubh Bhalerao, 38. He earned his bachelor's in engineering in Pune, India, then his master's degree (2001) and Ph.D. (2004) from the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State.

What brought you to Urbana?

After a brief stint as a post doc in the same department at Ohio State, I was hired by the Agricultural and Biological Engineering program at Illinois in 2005.

Do you have advice for young entrepreneurs?

Focus on creating value for your customer, and keep both ears open when they provide feedback. (I'm going to remind myself of this one often.)

Are there any mistakes you've made en route to success?

Indeed — there have been many mistakes, though I try not to dwell on them too much. My wife probably could answer this question very specifically.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

I have certainly at times wanted to be an entrepreneur — my master's program coincided with the last stages of the early dot.com era around 2000. This new thing called E-Commerce was taking off, friends and colleagues were joining then nascent companies like eBay and Amazon. It was a heady time despite the bust that followed. During that period joining a startup was a possibility, and making one was a dream. Once I started my Ph.D. program those ambitions took a back seat, partly because of other priorities like getting my immigration status in order and working towards tenure became more important.

You won a National Science Foundation award in the Small Business Innovation Research program to support work on a low-cost soil fertility sensor. How far are you from getting it on the market?

I have made it my mission to make a real difference to the lives and the pocketbooks of our corn and soybean farmers. The UI is an enormous fount of knowledge related to soil fertility, agriculture and engineering. With the SBIR funding, we now have the resources to translate well-established research about soil fertility into a soil nitrogen test that will allow corn growers to make profitable decisions about their yield goals and nitrogen application rates.

The FertiSaver-N test is a soil test that measures the fertility of a soil. Growers can better manage their nitrogen application rates, in order to increase yields, while reducing input costs. We have started the task of manufacturing the test kits and sensor equipment. If all goes well, we hope to achieve a limited launch of our product within the next 2-3 months.

In your own lab on the Urbana campus, you have a working prototype of the Soybean Cyst Nematode Egg Extraction System. How will this help farmers?

The SCNExtractor is another product that we are trying to commercialize through Soil Diagnostics Inc. In contrast with the soil fertility test benefitting corn farmers, this one is for soybean growers. The soybean cyst nematode is the largest soybean pathogen. The SCN counting process is currently manual and therefore very expensive. Our prototype automates the process of SCN egg separation from the soil sample and uses computer vision to count the eggs providing a consistent, fast and automated process.

What's next for your company?

As we validate our prototype and move toward production mode, we are constantly reaching out to independent agronomists and crop consultants to understand how they can best serve their grower clients through better agronomic advice, and how we can tune our soil testing products to fit their workflow.


Do you have a social media presence?

We have a presence on Twitter @SoilDxInc.

Books or Kindles? What are you reading now?

I like them all, though one reason I bought the giant iPhone 6 Plus is to read books on it. The last book I read on paper was "Ender's Game" with my 7-year-old. On the phone I'm reading an old Indian epic, "The Mahabharata."

Do you have any wearable electronics?

Nothing has caught my eye yet.