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Snehal Verma ’23, a Melissa & Doug Entrepreneur, discussed her venture, NatureDots.

Tell us about your venture and what inspired you to start it.

I love whales, dolphins, and everything water! I have spent majority of my life on the banks of either a lake, river, coastline, or even a small stream in a forest. I grew fascinated by the sheer scale of interconnected relationships of people fishing and dealing with water with the complex biodiversity like gangetic dolphins, long-headed eagle ray, and gharials. And they all seem to be immediately affected by one main pain point—water pollution and climate change impacts.

While working across different freshwater ecosystems in seven landscapes over the last three years, engaging with 1000+ fish farmers—including 125 women fish farmers, commercial fish farmers, and grassroots communities—I observed that the fish farmers suffer huge losses at tune of USD 16000/ha/year due to the fluctuating water quality, resorting to unsustainable practices to control pollution and to achieve high growth. Their existing solutions are piecemeal, unable to address their day-to-day fish pond management issues, and due to a lack of scientific end-to-end solutions, their situation is further aggravated because of sub-optimal rates of fish production, and they are often pushed into debt-laden traps. The wildlife suffers equally in silence and is often at the last rung of importance.

This challenged us to rethink the way existing fisheries and freshwater resources are being managed; how might we mitigate the risks of fish farmers and establish sustainable freshwater fisheries?

This led to creation of the AquaNurch System—a pulse checker, which is a combination of hardware and software to unlock the power of DeepTech tools and establish climate resilience in waterscapes and de-risk livelihoods.

Currently, with this innovation, we’ve mapped 2000+ ha and have engaged with 1000+ fish farmers in India’s Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh states and Washington state in the U.S.

What has your Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs experience been like so far, and what are you most taking away from it?  Are there other ways you’re plugging into Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship community?

The M&D Entrepreneurs experience has had a multiplier effect on my overall growth and has woven my entrepreneurial experience at Duke together by providing me with a holistic and customized environment of innovation and entrepreneurship.

As a founder, wearing multiple hats is inevitable, and this program has taught me how to navigate the multitude of roles I play. The best part is that it acts a safe space to share your fears and uncertainties, and interacting with cohort members and program directors provided a platform to address them. I learned some key lessons in how to be better prepared in difficult situations during fundraising and how to steer away from toxicity in the process.

My best experience was the M&D Entrepreneurs pitch day to the I&E advisory board. In the span of 15 minutes, I was able to get some ground-breaking insights from the board members that further bolstered my confidence. The one-on-one interaction with Melissa Bernstein, Hetal Pandya, Jeff Muti, Amy Linnane, and others has been one of the best pieces of leverage I’ve received. I was able to find synergies and talk through the issues such as how to keep a team motivated and whether I should get worried with all the competitive noisemakers in my sector. It helped me establish a long-lasting network and relationship capital. I also made extensive use of the Duke Innovation Co-Lab for iterating on my ideas with a hands-on-approach, tapping into the vast tech-stack resources available at the Co-Lab, such as 3-D printing.

I have been part of Duke I&E since my first year as a graduate student, and via the Duke I&E network, I was able to learn more about the innovation and start-up ecosystem in America. Meeting other ecosystem partners such as E3 Durham and founders from the Research Triangle area have taught me skills and a perspective that I could not have gained otherwise.

What’s a significant hurdle you’ve faced with your venture, how did you address it, and what was the outcome?

Starting up right as we entered the pandemic was one major hurdle when we started NatureDots in December 2019. The experience embedded in us how to be adaptive, flexible, and resilient. As a HardTech venture, our key pain points ranged from the shortfall in the semi-conductor market, to lockdowns, to building a remote-first team.

But this turned out to be an opportunity for us as we steered through the crisis by planning ahead and building risk scenarios for strategizing, spending most of our time building on partnerships with suppliers and manufacturers, and most importantly keeping communication channels open and active with our key customers.

For example, our first pilot started right before India went into lockdown. The fish farmers had planned their cycle based on our pilot timelines, and we were able to launch the testing based on the input and guidance of our advisors and key customers, who anticipated the market and logistical changes well in advance and collaborated with us. This also helped us solidify our market fit and validation.

On a personal level, as a first-generation woman entrepreneur belonging to a tribal community from one of the most under-developed regions in India, I was one of the lucky people who had access to education, resources, and exposure to dream big and undertake the risk of building a startup. And having an experienced and equally invested co-founder with a super team of passionate minds made it possible for me to explore a masters while building NatureDots.

What are the next steps for your venture, and what most excites you and motivates you to keep moving?

Our next key steps will be to continue building the foundation for a cross-border venture and testing our innovation and its offshoots, iterating on different business models and use cases, and attracting the right partners to work and innovate with. Also, continuing to build our super team!

The most exciting part is to see how different stakeholders interact with our product and solution, from government partners, to commercial aquaculturists, to small-scale fish farmers, to industries like breweries.

We have challenged the status quo and the business-as-usual way of managing our ecosystems by providing an agile solution that acts at the right causal node of the main pain point. Seeing its impact on people, planet, and profits drives us to keep moving.

Where do you see your company a year from now?

Our idea is to create a ‘Digital Twin’ of critical ecosystems, upscale nature-based solutions for building climate-resilient communities, biodiversity, and natural resource assets.

By the end of next year, we aim to drill down on our key beach-head and convert the traction we have received this year. The main focus will be to strengthen our operations and product offering and raise capital to scale up.

Duke enabled me to dream bigger and broadened my horizon. Being at Duke gave me access to a global audience to brainstorm with, iterate with, and share our vision, which broke some misconceptions and helped create new possibilities.