Brad Koch, 2011, B.S., and Jesse Vollmar, 2011, B.S., weren’t typical college students. As incoming freshmen at SVSU, the two were already running a successful IT consulting business. Since their 2011 graduation, both with a Bachelor of Science in computer science, they’ve also “graduated” from their initial business and have started a new company, FarmLogs, which has attracted a lot of investor interest as well as $5
million in venture capital.
“Proximity was a key factor [in choosing SVSU],” Jesse said. The financial assistance each received was also helpful. As co-valedictorians of their graduating class at Union-Sebewaing High School in Michigan’s Thumb, both received the President’s Scholarship at SVSU, which covered their tuition and select fees for four years.
“Brad and I started our company in high school,” Jesse said, “and it was taking off. I knew I wanted to continue operating it while obtaining a degree, so moving [too far] away [from home] wasn’t an option. SVSU was in the right place.”
Brad agreed, adding that the scholarship gave them the financial security to channel more effort into their business.
“We were able to learn while working,” he said. “And we could apply things we were learning to actual clients.”
Having grown up in farming communities, Brad and Jesse were familiar with the challenges farmers face, including a lack of technological sophistication in agriculture generally. While their IT consulting business was successful, both Jesse and Brad recognized they could do more.
“With our consulting business, we were building software for an agricultural client,” Brad said. “We realized there was a huge need in the agricultural sector and nobody was building software for farmers.”
“The light bulb moment came at my family’s farm,” Jesse added. “I was in the office, and another farmer asked me if we were ready with our software. We weren’t even creating software yet, but that was the moment we decided we could make it successful.”
“It” would be FarmLogs, a web application for farm management.
Jesse said he and Brad “daydreamed” about the project for about six months before they began working on the app. The product and the process were made better after participating in Y Combinator, a program that provides seed money, advice, networking and guidance to business startups, especially those in the technology sector.
“We went full-scale into FarmLogs on Jan. 3, 2012, the first day of Y Combinator,” Jesse said. From there, the product and the business grew nicely, and today the app is being used by farmers.
From their company headquarters in Ann Arbor, Brad and Jesse see a future ripe with possibility.
“Ag needs data technology,” Brad said. “Existing players weren’t providing it. We’re here to make sure that changes; we’re bringing people the software they need.”
“There are decades of innovation to be built,” added Jesse.
“We’ll be working on FarmLogs for a very long time.”
High school: Bullock Creek
Major: Computer science
Future: Graduate student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Master of Computer Science program
Dustyn Tubbs is ready for the next upgrade.
The Midland native has spent much of his time at Saginaw Valley State University equipping himself with a level of knowledge and a breadth of research experience that undergraduate students eyeing a career in computer technology typically do not possess. Now Tubbs does, and his work has earned him entry into one of the nation’s top graduate schools for computer science.
“I’m very fortunate,” said Tubbs, set to begin in August 2016 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently ranked by U.S. News as one of the five best schools in the nation for graduate-level computer science programs.
“It’s a great opportunity.”
Not only is Tubbs enrolled. His résumé was so impressive that he earned a teaching assistantship that will pay his entire tuition at the institution, located between Chicago and St. Louis.
Tubbs said he might have missed the opportunity if he hadn’t attended SVSU, where he will receive his bachelor’s degree in computer science in May 2016.
“A lot of the successes had to do with having very good relationships with faculty members, who are there for you, for professional issues and personal issues,” he said.
“At SVSU, you are afforded opportunities to perform professional research, and that helped me a lot. To be able to say I had research experience as an undergraduate student makes me a unique applicant to a lot of institutions with graduate programs.”
One of those opportunities teamed him with Khandaker Rahman, SVSU assistant professor of computer science & information systems. Through a grant with the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, the pair researched facial recognition technology in smartphones.
“What really impressed me about Dustyn — and was a deciding factor in offering him the chance at research with me — was not how he was right, but how willing he was to be wrong,” Rahman said. “However rare that was for him, he always saw it as a chance to learn. I believe it was both his capacity as a student and as a curious budding scholar of computer science that helped him achieve unimaginable successes.”
The two also collaborated on research exploring movement-based authentication for smartphones. In other words, the work examined how smartphone users could unlock the device by waving it around in a certain pattern.
The work led Tubbs to present the research in August 2014 at the USENIX Security Symposium in San Diego, where international researchers, practitioners and professionals gather to discuss the latest advances in computer system security.
Tubbs also presented his studies on smartphone facial recognition technology in November 2015 at the International Conference on Multimedia Communications Services and Security. The destination that time: Kraków, Poland.
“I was one of two undergraduates at that conference, and I was able to give a presentation,” he said. “That’s not something a lot of undergrads get to do. So that was pretty swell.”
Opportunities such as these helped Tubbs secure a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant in summer 2015 to study computer science — specifically, artificial neural networks — at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“It was mind-blowing,” he said of the experience. “I consider it a defining moment in terms of how I want to move forward. It was very motivating.”
The motivation, of course, led him to apply at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to continue his studies. He hopes to study the sort of machine learning and data science that is humanizing the world’s computer networks and upgrading the human experience.
“I don’t think our time should be spent doing very basic things when computers are able to do them for us,” Tubbs said.
“How many farmers have an oxen that plows fields today? They all have tractors now. Artificial intelligence is one of those tools that can help us make better use of our time. I would be happy to write a program that would allow an artist or a scholar to follow their dreams.”
In the meantime, Tubbs is grateful SVSU helped him follow his dreams.