A high-tech startup founded at Delft University of Technology in 2013, aQysta is on a quest to provide sustainable hydro-powered irrigation technologies for farmers worldwide. A majority of profits are reinvested to grow the company and support aQysta’s mission to have a positive economic, environmental and social impact.
Co-founder and managing director Lennart Buddelman reveals the company’s journey to date and the benefits of being a PwC Social Impact Lab winner.
It was a six-month stint of voluntary work that confronted Lennart Buddelman with a very different world of water than he was used to back in Europe. These experiences made him decide to use his industrial engineering specialism and early career learnings in the German automotive and aerospace sectors in a way that would benefit the water sector and drive change in the world.
"Pratap came to Delft from Nepal with an idea for a hydro-powered water pump called the Barsha, the Nepalese word for rain."
Following a Master’s in Technology Management at TU Delft, Lennart met Pratap Thapa, another co-founder of aQysta and now commercial director. “Pratap came to Delft from Nepal with an idea for a hydro-powered water pump called the Barsha, the Nepalese word for rain. This pump was an obvious theoretical solution in a country with some 6000 rivers surrounded by farmland. Despite their physical proximity, farms still struggle to get water onto their land from rivers. This kind of economic water scarcity – where water is present yet hard to utilise – affects around a billion people worldwide.”
Like Lennart, Pratap had a background in industrial engineering and experience in the manufacturing sector. A keen advocate of using technology to solve society’s problems, he came to TU Delft to hone his entrepreneurial skills and practice what he preached. There he met the third co-founder of aQysta, Fred Henny, who is now responsible for product development and design. Pratap and Fred were introduced via a start-up matchmaking programme and had already won recognition for their concepts by winning the Philips Innovation Award before aQysta was officially established in 2013.
“Today we have eight different nationalities working across four continents,” Lennart continues. “The team comprises a mix of expert designers & engineers with international business developers who have sound knowledge of the irrigation context and user scenarios from around the world. Complemented by senior experts and mentors who bring aQysta business acumen, technical knowledge and networks, this unique setup has been the driving force both for our growth to date and the ambitious plans to see innovative hydro-pumps floating in rivers and canals around the world, enabling farmers to work more commercially.”
Describing this current situation belies the challenging journey that aQysta has taken over the past seven years. “We started as student graduates with good ideas on paper but no online research to back them up. Raising funds to develop the technology and develop the Barsha into a commercial product took time. We started an affiliated entity in 2015 to sell and install pumps in Nepal, which served as the platform for conducting research and experiments.
“Since launching the Barsha in 2017 we’ve received customer feedback from the 24 countries to which it has been exported, technical validation in diverse geographies and market opportunity in various socio-economic conditions. The product has been further developed to address different customer segments and, in 2020, we added a second product to our portfolio called the HyPump. This caters to larger farming areas so can be used by large commercial farms as well as by whole farming communities in countries like Nepal.”
Lennart recognises the transition that aQysta has gone through as a company. “We initially evolved into a techy-nerdy firm focused on developing technologies. After a while you have to balance that out by adding more commercial power and thinking about your marketing and sales strategy. Even the best technology still has to be sold and that’s the road we have taken over the last 18 months. Now we are professionalising all these processes to facilitate the entire value chain of the product; from lead generation to delivery and after-sales.”
During this phase aQysta encountered a whole new dimension in the company related to internal growth and saw how that can become a bottleneck. In 2019 the company took part in PwC’s Social Impact Lab competition, designed to help start-ups and scale-ups with a social mission take the vital next steps. aQysta was among the four winners chosen to receive two years of intensive coaching and advice from PwC, use of its facilities and a money prize.
“This collaboration started in early 2020 and the support we’ve received from PwC and Strategy& has been very valuable,” says Lennart. “It has enabled us to fight on multiple fronts and fully address the professionalisation of the company. From the sanitisation of our sales process, advance of new business models and fund raising to the development of the IT infrastructure, the support we’ve received has been really broad.”
"We initially evolved into a techy-nerdy firm focused on developing technologies. After a while you have to balance that out by adding more commercial power and thinking about your marketing and sales strategy."
"This collaboration with PwC and Strategy& has solved a lot of issues that you don’t realise when starting up a company, such as how to structure the organisation in terms of departments."
A core tenant of the aQysta philosophy is to avoid sustainability for the sake of sustainability. “The cost of the product and the economic benefits you create are at least as valuable as pushing your sustainable solutions onto the market,” Lennart explains. “At aQysta we strive to bridge the stereotypical gap between corporate companies that grow for profit and NGOs who try to do something good but are intrinsically limited by their available resources. We are building a company that combines both elements, fuelling its impact via a sustainable business model which has a product that makes sense in the market as its backbone. The more such products one sells, the greater the potential impact in the world.”
To those who already have such a product, Lennart stresses the importance of finding the right support. “This collaboration with PwC and Strategy& has solved a lot of issues that you don’t realise when starting up a company, such as how to structure the organisation in terms of departments. We are also now addressing factors like how best to price products in the market, how to price the different entities of the company and various regulatory matters. All these factors come into play at some point and it is extremely valuable to have a partner by your side who can help.”
A final word from former Strategy& manager Lars Langhout: “We have found it very inspiring to see how everyone at aQysta is so driven to enable smallholder farmers to sustain themselves and their families with their farming activities alone. It has been a genuine pleasure to partner with Lennart, Pratap, Henny and the others on this truly worthy venture.”