Q&A with Alumni: Thomas Palomares
November 15, 2017
Meet Thomas Palomares, an MS&E Alum who is an AI engineer with a fervid desire to make agriculture sustainable.
Farmwise.io is a company he co-founded that is building autonomous products for farming to automate farming tasks and avoid the use of pesticides on farms.
"MS&E gave me a good footing in entrepreneurship, VC, business, markets awareness, while also allowing me to have an engineering background."
Why did you choose MS&E?
MS&E offered a combination of business and engineering classes. It was a good balance of both disciplines' concepts. After speaking with a few students enrolled in the MS&E program, I decided to pursue the Master’s Degree.
What does it mean to be an MS&E alum?
MS&E gave me a good footing in entrepreneurship, VC, business, markets awareness, while also allowing me to have an engineering background.
How does your time at Stanford impact what you do now?
In France, being a manager was seen as a sign that you couldn’t be a computer engineer at the same time. But at Stanford, being a manager is seen as a sign that you are bright and can do a variety of things. That was largely the reason why I took MS&E classes at first—as a way to develop my business and management skills—but after realizing the fact that engineering was really valued here, I began taking more engineering and computer science classes.
Because Stanford is in the heart of Silicon Valley, there is a huge focus on software and computer science roles. This extends to the company we started, which has a huge technology component to it—building autonomous robots, which is mostly a technological challenge rather than a business challenge.
Was there a particular class or professor that really stuck with you?
There was one –MS&E 276: Entrepreneurial Management and Finance by Tom Byers and Trevor Loy. Tom was really great at framing the class, and Trevor was a VC (venture capitalist) so we really went into depth about entrepreneurial management and finance. It was really interesting. And it was a unique class that taught me once you start a business, the main challenges you are going to face, legal aspects related to your idea, etc. We had a lot of case studies, and Tom was really good at bringing in other people who gave great lectures, and Trevor had a lot of experience and talked about how he worked with each company and how VCs worked.
Can you tell me about the work you are doing now?
I started this company, FarmWise, with a friend from undergrad about a year ago, once I graduated from Stanford (actually a bit before finishing). We are building autonomous products for farming to automate farming tasks and avoid the use of pesticides on farms. The main concept is that farmers encounter two major issues: the first one is labor, it’s difficult for them to find anyone willing to do all those farming tasks; the second one is the willingness of using fewer pesticides and herbicides and having a more sustainable way of farming. So we are helping farmers by building this autonomous machine that can function without supervision and automate farming tasks. The first focus was removing weeds from the crops. That is the first one, and then we will expand into other farming tasks.
What inspires you most about this company? What is your main motivation?
It is always really interesting to work with farmers. They are working in tough and harsh environments and are motivated by food and agriculture. There are not a large number of startups focused on this market trying to help farmers. Right now, we are trying to launch on a few farms and performing a pilot. Also, just the possibility of applying computer vision and machine learning to agriculture. Farming used to be done only at the field-level without granularity. So our machine can go over each plant, analyze its needs, and act on the analysis to give it what it needs. Agriculture is really a large market and there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into it. We are replacing herbicides with a mechanical process to reduce pesticide use. And hopefully, we will eventually improve the processes of fertilizing and watering.
If there are one or two things that have enabled you to be successful in your career, what would it be?
One of the main things would be the team that I work with every day. First, Seb my cofounder-we brainstorm ideas quickly and were motivated by each other. We have a team of four and have spent a lot of time together to build the first functioning machine; taking on the technical and business challenges and difficulties. Also, just spending time with farmers and understanding them and their challenges.
What advice would you give to a current MS&E student?
It’s important to stay true to yourself and what you really want, even when you’re presented with other good job offers.
When I was presented with multiple offers of employment after graduation, it was hard to refuse an offer. I had one offer from Google and another offer from a startup that was created from the research lab I worked at. Both positions were really interesting and paid well, making it hard to say no. And when I decided to not pursue those offers, both companies responded, “If you change your mind, just come back next year and we will take you.”
But it was really worth it to develop my own startup, which has its own challenges and rewards. With so many opportunities out there, choose the one that inspires you now, because you can always find or revisit opportunities in the future.
What support is available for students pursuing a similar career endeavor?
Accelerators. Launchpad at the Design School. One of the people from the accelerator was at our initial demo. We had a few interviews and they accepted us. We didn’t apply anywhere else because they were already conveniently located on campus. We finished school in June, and the accelerator started in August.