Impact Connections: Leading the Herd in Sustainable Entrepreneurship with Gazelle Ecosolutions
By Sandi Ruddick, GSLI Senior Administrative Associate
The Global Sustainability Leadership Institute (GSLI) held its third annual (and first in-person!) Texas Sustainability Innovation Challenge (TSIC) final pitch competition on April 29. TSIC is a program and pitch competition designed to prepare the next generation of innovators to create sustainable, world-changing start-ups (https://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/centers-and-initiatives/global-sustainability-leadership-institute/experiential-learning/texas-social-innovation-challenge/) . Gazelle, the team awarded both the first-place and the coveted Audience Choice Awards, took home cash prizes of $5,500 and will represent UT-Austin at the prestigious Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge in June.
Gazelle Ecosolutions, LLC is a partnership between UT freshmen Amod Daherkar (CEO), Siddharth Thakur (CTO), Mihir Bendre (CIO), Ben Breed (CFO), and their mentor, UT professor Dr. Thoralf Meyer (COB). Based on over 20 years of research by Dr. Meyer in the Kalahari region of Africa, the team has developed a mobile platform app to help cattle ranchers in this region protect the ecosystems in which they operate through computing sustainable carrying capacity, wildfire risk assessments, and profit yields to enable them to sustainably maximize the productivity of the land. Gazelle will be able to offer the app free to ranchers in underdeveloped regions through the sales of carbon offsets. After the current testing phase is complete, the company hopes to roll out the app in Botswana in 2023, with global expansion anticipated to follow. For more information or to see how you can be involved, visit the Gazelle website: https://thegazelle.co/
Sandi: How did you all meet, and what inspired you to start Gazelle?
Gazelle: Siddharth — It all started early January, when I heard about TSIC and was excited to participate. I was looking for an exciting problem or opportunity to solve. Mihir and I are good friends, and we’ve talked a lot about different sustainable things — from composting to wildfires. I brought together a few of my friends, including Amod, who I knew from startups, and Ben Breed, someone I also knew from a different competition. Mihir brought to us an interesting idea from a conversation with Dr. Meyer. Dr. Meyer spoke to him about this issue where ranchers struggled to calculate the carrying capacity of the land, and there was an also a possibility of developing an application for them that can do this. We’re pretty excited about this, because it seemed like not only a perfect problem to solve for Dr. Meyer, but also a good fit for TSIC. We met and started working on this idea, and it became more apparent after a few weeks of working on it that is not just a simple solution for a competition, but this is actually a long-term solution that can impact the community. It became a start-up because we realized we had to turn it into business in order to actually impact the larger population.
Sandi: What special knowledge or skills do you each bring to the team?
Gazelle: Mihir — I’m a physics major, and I’ve been particularly interested in conservation in wildlife, restoration, ecology, and topics of environmental science for the last couple of years, so I bring that side of knowledge to the team. Siddharth Thakur — I’m the technology lead for the team; I work on developing the app itself, coding it, and working on the algorithms behind it. I’ve done a good bit of work in robotics and electrical engineering, so I guess I’m the (S)TEM lead. Amod has worked in the startup ecosystem for a while; he’s a business major with history, and he’s very capable of finance and accounting and different strategic things. Ben is actually an expert in accounting and also government — he’s a double major in business and government — so he helps with planning and government connections.
Sandi: Why did you join the Texas Sustainability Innovation Challenge?
Gazelle: Siddharth — I’m really passionate about the climate and about sustainability. I really think that this is the foremost problem that we need to solve, and we need to have impactful, practical solutions to problems such as ranching wildfires, overgrazing, and issues like that. Mihir — TSIC was a great avenue to make real-world impact and find people who are interested in sustainability, as well as make good connections.
Sandi: How did TSIC support your entrepreneurial journey? What did you learn from the program?
Gazelle: Mihir — I wasn’t really that knowledgeable about entrepreneurship and how you start ventures. The fact that I was able to connect with a team who already had some sort of experience — Sidd is working on his startup, and Amod is working on his startup, as well — meant that I got some background about how this actually works. The structure of TSIC — having to do a lot of the deliverables like writing an executive summary for our business and pitching — really helped me grow as an entrepreneur.
Sandi: What advice would you give to aspiring student impact entrepreneurs?
Gazelle: Siddharth — The first thing is to keep an open mind and look for problems around you, because they’re abundant. The difficult thing about entrepreneurship is not in finding a good idea, it’s in executing it. A good plan with a good team and strong work ethic and determination — I think that if you continue along your path and hit your milestones, you will make an impact in whatever small or large problem you set out to solve. Amod — I’m going to add that it all comes down to execution, because I think that coming up with an idea is not awfully difficult. Even if you don’t initially have the tools or skill set to do that, it’s really more of a problem-solving game of “how do we get from point A to B, even if doing it that way doesn’t make sense”.
Sandi: What is the best thing for you personally about this journey to create Gazelle?
Gazelle: Siddharth — The best part for me is seeing the potential impacts that we’re going to have. Today, for instance, we spoke with the embassy in Botswana and heard their excitement about the potential impact that we could have with our simple application that just really started out as an idea — it’s very exciting for me. Also, knowing that what we’re doing is making it free for these farmers, and that’s such a great incentive for them. I really think that we could actually make a change here, and that’s definitely my main motivation. Mihir — The best thing personally for me would be that I have a chance to make a real-world impact in a developing country. It has always been my goal to solve social or environmental problems in the developing world, because I grew up in India and I’ve seen that it’s a lot harder to implement environmental regulations and stuff when you have a population which is mostly impoverished and growing rapidly. It’s just a much bigger problem in the developing world compared to the developed world, so having the opportunity to actually travel to Botswana and do this — I’m very grateful for it. Amod — The greatest joy is finding a business model that sort of blurs the line between social innovation and entrepreneurship, but also having a very scalable model with a very high risk for commercialization. I think a lot of times people have to think about this in a one-dimensional way, when you’re trying to commercialize the product. You’re obviously very concerned with what your margins look like, and there’s maybe a direct trade-off with the main figures going forward, especially in terms of the end user. In this case, we’re able to effectively subsidize the product and make it free because of the sales of carbon offsets. I think, for me, the most interesting thing here is really being able to reward communities for sustainable behavior without incurring any financial loss in that process. I think being able to do that is fairly uncommon, and then still working with this team has been pretty rewarding.
Sandi: Can you tell us a little bit about the next step for Gazelle — developing the carbon methodology and testing in Botswana?
Gazelle: Siddharth — So currently for the app, we’re at the stage where we are able to calculate carrying capacity for multiple types of animals, basically allowing farmers to know what the economic projections of selling their cattle are. We’re also working on satellite integration wildfire risk assessments to give farmers data to see when a wildfire might happen, how to prevent it, how to work with it. The research that we’re doing is testing the app on the ground in Texas, which has a similar equatorial position to Botswana, and doing research on how to implement our carbon methodology. Amod — We will be going to Botswana this summer to test the app there, taking measurements and putting that data in. Mihir has been doing a great job of actually identifying and setting the appropriate carbon methodologies. Mihir — We’re going to actually see what the conditions are over there, how we can actually implement more of the human and social aspects of things, and also the environmental research that goes into building this app out and doing the carbon credits. Siddharth — We’re looking next semester to work with some software development teams to really flush out large aspects of the app while we continue to test it on the ground in Texas and Botswana, simultaneously. We haven’t set a definite date, but I’m sure in 2023 we will look to potentially have a public demonstration of the application.
Sandi: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Gazelle: Amod — I wanted to say to not hesitate to leverage opportunities that exist at UT. TSIC was great for us for not just the prize money but for also getting that initial exposure and the opportunity to pitch. I think the same thing goes for other opportunities at UT, like Blackstone or the Kelleher Center; it’s super useful utilizing the opportunities that exist at UT. Mihir — What starts here changes the world.
This interview has been edited in context and length for clarity and brevity.