Last year, La Trobe University and Hacker Exchange organised the La Trobe University Hackathon in Muldura. The event was part of the La Trobe Accelerator Program (LTAP), a free 12-week program dedicated to support, mentor and provide seed funding to regional start-ups and entrepreneurs.

LBS Agribusiness student Julia Payne and her mother took part in the hackathon and won tickets for a funded trip to Silicon Valley with their idea of “Farm Mate”: a one-stop-shop for all resources and programs to help farmers prioritise tasks and save money. Their trip took part in December 2018 so it was time for Business Newsroom to sit down with Julia and ask her about the trip.

Congratulations on winning those tickets at the hackathon! First of all, what is a hackathon?

In August my Mum and I attended a hackathon run at La Trobe University Mildura Campus. This hackathon was run over a weekend and the whole concept of it was an intensive, thought-provoking weekend to develop an idea we were passionate about. We had to research it, validate it with real customers and put forward a pitch at the end to display the progress we had made during the weekend. The prize up for grabs was three tickets, which was later turned into four, sponsored by the La Trobe Accelerator Program to attend the Hacker Exchange trip to Silicon Valley.

Julia and her mother presenting Farm Mate

Could you tell us more about Farm Mate?

Our winning idea is Farm Mate: a customisable home page for farmers where they can access all of the information they need, relevant to their jobs or tasks, all in one location. This includes weather, drone footage, OH&S, budgeting, mental health, chemicals and more. This platform is enhanced by the networking feature to allow farmers to communicate in a trusted environment, with the aim to remove an element of isolation out of farming. While the idea sounds simple, it’s actually quite complicated to set up. It is a passion of ours and we were able to pitch it in a way that won us a trip to Silicon Valley.

It sounds really interesting! So how was the trip to Silicon Valley?

It was great. While in America, we were based in San Francisco where we lived, worked and explored for two weeks. During this time, we met with many different influential people from Silicon Valley and San Francisco. They told us a lot about what it is like to live and work in America, the protocol differences from Australia, what it is like to be a start-up, how to prototype a product or service, but also about venture capital, marketing and networking. We even learned how to build an app.

Throughout the two weeks we attended the Hacker Exchange program during the day and were encouraged to meet with people in our industries, go to Meetups, and network at the end of the day. This is where we were able to make many connections, many of which we may not realise the value of yet.

It was amazing to see how everybody in the group progressed. The Hacker Exchange program is one like no other. It provided us the opportunity to learn skills and meet people that I would otherwise never have met. In the classroom, you often get told to prototype your product/service but a program like the Hacker Exchange teaches you HOW to prototype. I believe that is the main difference with the classroom environments and is what made the program so much more rewarding.

The Hacker Exchange group at Stanford university

What is the next step for Farm Mate?

A really important lesson we learned was that we are not interested in venture capital and we are not driven by money. We are passionate about our idea, it being about information sharing, networking and easy access to much needed information, and find that it is integral to the future of farming, particularly in Australia.

We believe that we can build the community required to contribute information into the platform, however we are still seeking the technical support and advice to build the platform for both phone and computer. We would like to start small and just contribute the information we already have, freely available to the public on a platform such as a blog. We would like to monitor the reach and need for this information and then slowly develop the web page and app from there. We are at an exciting point in the start-up process, now it is just up to us where we choose to place our next foot along the path to getting Farm Mate up and running!

Julia and her mother in Chicago

Julia Payne is a second year Agribusiness and Accounting student at La Trobe University Mildura. She has been working for Southern Cross Farms as an Agribusiness Assistant since January 2018. Julia completed the La Trobe Accelerator Program in 2018, she has also joined the ABC Heywire and Macpherson Smith Rural Foundation Alumni, as well as being accepted into the La Trobe Hallmark program. Julia is a co-founder of Farm Mate.