Friday, January 26, 2024

Mark Vande Haar is a “Do-It-Yourself Forester” with a mission to keep the land free of invasive species. His Venture School-winning idea could make that happen.

“I grew up on a farm (near Oskaloosa) and we had a forester present a stewardship plan,” Vande Haar said. “They do an inventory on your forest and tell you how to take care of it. In 2018, he told us we have some invasive specifies issues. That’s what started my pursuit of trying to remove them.”

Invasive Removal was the first-place ($1,200) winner in the Des Moines cohort at the most recent Venture School final pitches in mid-November. On Nov. 15, Vande Haar, who now resides in Ames, left his tech job to focus fulltime on Invasive Removal. His modular robotic solution identifies and sprays woody invasive species — currently honeysuckle and multiflora rose. 

Four months earlier, in February of 2023, Vande Haar asked a software engineer colleague (who is now part of the Invasive Removal team) if a robot could remove honeysuckle. He received a positive response.

“That’s how we got started,” Vande Haar said. “Now we are doing hardware testing and building a working prototype.”

A marketing major who received degrees from Kirkwood Community College and Northern State (S.D.) University, Vande Haar had experience starting a marketing agency, running a business, and selling a business. Until now, he had never started a company from scratch. For support, Vande Haar turned to Venture School.

“I have been developing software products for the last 10 years and I never did any customer interviews. That was eye-opening,” Vande Haar said. “Customer interviews were a big part of Venture School.”

Once he started processing feedback from the customer interviews, Vande Haar felt comfortable leaving his fulltime job. Conservationists, foresters, and land owners were thrilled he was working on the invasive species removal project. 

“I don’t know if I would have done those interviews if I didn’t do Venture School,” Vande Haar said. “You have an idea, I knew there was a problem, it is a well-documented problem. But getting out and talking to people helped craft our value propositions and helped craft our product.”

Through Venture School, Vande Haar identified counties that would utilize his service. He found a price point of what customers would pay and now has divided the state into five sections — central, southwest, southeast, northeast, and northwest — where he plans to kick off the sales process and continue customer discovery. 

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but it is a start,” Vande Haar said. “Venture School was worth the money.”

To sign up for Venture School classes in Spring 2024, click HERE. Classes begin the week of Feb. 18.