Each week, staff writer Paul Wood interviews a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet ALFRED (AL) EISAIAN, co-founder and CEO of IntelinAir, who is a tech evangelist, serial entrepreneur, environmentalist and angel investor. His ideal workers? "Resilient, smart, nice people."
How did you become an entrepreneur?
Back in the 1990s when I was working for my then employer, I always came up with novel ideas for products and new ways of creating customer value. Then I read an article in BusinessWeek about Idealab, which was then the premier technology company incubator. I knew there and then that I wanted to pursue my ideas and create companies. That's how my journey began.
Was your family an inspiration?
As to my family background, my father was a restaurant owner and my mom was a homemaker. And my father was intensely focused on his children's need for education. So I guess I got my comfort with risk and my intense love of science and education from my father. And from my mother I got the need for steady and harmonious commitment to the mission.
Where did you go to college?
I earned my bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University while working full-time. At OSU, a good number of my friends were ag school. I received my MBA from Pepperdine University with an emphasis on leadership, entrepreneurship and business ethics.
What's the primary purpose of the Champaign office?
It's the core of our scientific work in artificial intelligence applied to ag. Our customer (farmer) relations team and all of our future expansion is focused in Champaign. We love our relationship with University of Illinois, our great support system at the Enterprise Works, and look for decades of growth there.
Where the newest thing going on with IntelinAir?
We are very focused on bringing AI to ag. All of the company efforts are focused on leveraging modern technologies in computer vision, high-resolution imagery and machine learning to bring actionable insights to growers and their service providers.
To improve global agriculture, solve the world's food crisis and encourage sustainability, how will science and technology serve humanity and the environment, if indeed those are two separate questions?
We believe that humanity's most difficult problems are also the biggest opportunities for science and technology to tackle. I personally just don't believe that complaining about problems actually does any good. I've always believed that the best form of activism is to treat everyone with respect and engage in healthy dialogue about possible fact-driven and scientific solutions. I also try to remain positive about the possible solutions to our most persistent problems.
Why is high-resolution aerial imagery a superior way to analyze fields and their potential?
I think to improve anything in the world, first, you have to be able to measure in detail the current state of things and then know where you want to improve and then close the gap with technological solutions. When you are able to measure things in more detail you also are able to observe anomalies and diseases, etc., more accurately. At four inches per pixel, where we are today, you can see much more clearly than at 10 to 50 square feet per pixel, which is the best (most expensive) satellite imagery resolution. We consume and analyze all sorts of imagery, satellite, aerial and drone, and each of them have their own value that they can add. But for identification of the most pressing issues in agriculture we believe 4 inches per pixel or better is a must.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from early on?
Many, many mistakes that became painful but nonetheless valuable lessons. The biggest lesson I learned early on was that you must take care of your own personal psychology (keep it real and positive) not to drive yourself crazy with anxiety. The other big lesson is that start-ups and innovation are team sports, so make sure you have the right team of high-energy, happy and can-do people on your team. Start-ups are excruciatingly hard, complex and risky. The last thing you want are, "it can't be done" and "I told you so" and "I'm smarter than everybody else" people around you. Pick resilient, smart, nice people to work with. Life is short.
TECH TIDBITS ... from AL EISAIAN
Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? It's an undeniable fact of life that social media can be a great tool for mass dissemination of information instantaneously. But it's also undeniable that it can also be an absolute mind-numbing distraction and a waste of time.
What's your favorite app? I am on LinkedIn (one to two hours a week) and Facebook (three to four hours a week).
On Facebook I follow ... Mostly friends. I am Armenian American, so I keep up with news about Armenia and community events.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I wear a Fitbit.
Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? Kirk Kerkorian (just read a book about him, too, called the "Gambler" by William C. Rempel. Also, I think Bill Gates still ranks way up high for me, not only for what he did with Microsoft but also what he has done since. I also admire Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia.