HeavyConnect: Leaning into Gaps in Technology to Mitigate Compliance Risk and Deliver Big Data across the Food Supply Chain

Aug 23, 2021

By Patrick Zelaya, Founder and CEO of HeavyConnect (Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator)

Every year, inefficiencies in the collection, management and documentation of compliance data cost the global food supply chain $105 billion. As federal regulators continue to increase requirements for food safety and labor management, the operational and financial burden on food producers and distributors grows. In 2015 Patrick Zelaya founded HeavyConnect, an intuitive mobile platform that digitizes and simplifies compliance from the field to the office and unites the food supply chain with powerful, real-time data. The company completed Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator in 2018.

In order to comply with federal regulations for food safety and labor management, food producers and distributors need to rely on data collected multiple times a day from many different parts of their operation. Since the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was introduced in 2011, the number of annual audits an average producer experiences has increased significantly, making this data more important than ever. Between internal audits, buyer audits, and federal annual audits, food producers and distributors experience immense pressure to rigorously document their food safety program or risk losing buyer relationships and harming their bottom line.

When I founded HeavyConnect, I understood that all these regulations were implemented to improve food quality and make it safer for the end consumer, but I also saw the harrowing task they placed on food producers to stay in compliance. Traditional paper-based methods of collecting compliance information are slow, inaccurate, and create an immense operational burden. 

This is how my team and I took a closer look at the challenge, realized the market lacked a good digital solution for the end user, and solved the problem quite literally from the ground up.

Seeing an Unmet Need

Our small team started out with domain expertise in the agriculture industry. We were aware of the many compliance documentation requirements and dozens of regulatory agencies impacting every organization in the food supply chain. We knew that much of that documentation was conducted on paper and suspected that might be a pain point.

Every farm office we visited had a wall of binders — each one used to demonstrate regulatory compliance in one way or another. Our vision was to replace all the binders with a virtual farm office where compliance and record-keeping could be managed from anywhere.

Although we weren’t the first company to try to eliminate paper from the food supply chain, we believed the market was underserved and thought we could create a solution that was better than the current options.

Identifying A Market Opportunity 

Through conversations with industry experts and prospective customers, we learned that other software was optimized for the office administrators with a web dashboard that aggregated reports and showed trends over time, but their technology neglected the end users in the field or at the ground level where data is inputted. On the surface, this offered an advantage over paper-based systems. But we heard that good data wasn’t making it from the field and facility into their system in the first place. No matter how sophisticated the dashboard was, they would never get actionable insights from bad data. 

This weakness was our “in” to create a better solution. What we needed to build was the right tool for ground-level data collection. We started our research by meeting our end users where they were.

Getting Our Developers Out in the Field

We saw that field conditions are unique and make documentation challenging. For an app to make a difference it would need to make it as simple as possible to collect data while an inspection was actually happening. In order to develop a great solution it was crucial to get everyone on our team out into the field to speak with end users. Our developers started visiting fields and facilities to spend time with crew leaders and foremen to understand their operations, how they were managing their food safety and labor management programs, and how technology could facilitate an easier process.   

Our developers learned that it can be difficult to transition from an office setting to a field or assembly line factory floor. When you visit a food safety user you have to put on a hair net, remove any jewelry, and sanitize your shoes. It’s like entering a different world, and by taking those steps, you see how serious their work is.

Some app requirements, like the need for Spanish language options, were obvious. But others didn’t become evident until we joined our users in the field. For example, bright direct sun can make it hard for workers to see the screen on a mobile device. Our developers saw this challenge up close and designed our app with bright colors and large buttons with icons and text. We also heard that many of our potential app users were accustomed to the flow of paper forms and were unfamiliar with mobile devices. To meet their needs, our team developed checklists that mimicked the same flow as a paper form.

Building Tools the Right Way

Since no other software was optimized for the field user, there weren’t other apps that we could do teardowns on to nail the user experience. We had to spend hands-on time with our users to explore and discover it on our own. By learning from our competitors’ weaknesses and our observations, we’ve been able to create an experience that minimizes the friction of digital transformation.

Our customers were surprised how quickly their employees picked up the HeavyConnect mobile app and dashboard. The result is that while our Customer Success team provides comprehensive support, we also find that they’re not always necessary when a user fully embraces the product. 

Today, these details are the things that stand out to our prospective customers during the sales cycle. They see that we are familiar with the ground-level experience and that our app is optimized to actually capture the data that makes a tool like a web dashboard useful.

A Strategy That Works in Any Industry

No matter your industry, you have to join your user where they are in order to see which needs your competitors aren’t meeting. For most founders and developers, that won’t require walking out into a field while a crew is harvesting lettuce, but it does mean hands-on experience alongside your users and understanding how competitors are not currently meeting their needs. That strategy led us to find product-market fit and as we continue to use it, it will help us maintain our competitive advantage.

About the Author
Patrick Zelaya

Patrick has an extensive and diverse background in global agriculture. Starting with the earliest stages of the food supply chain, Patrick has consulted grower & supplier enterprises on digital transformation and technology adoption. During his career at Deere and Company, Patrick deployed strategic growth initiatives from the tractor assembly plant in Waterloo, Iowa, to sugar cane harvesters in Argentina, to forage harvesters in Germany, and throughout the US. Patrick understands the diversity in farming practices and the need for dynamic support of field operations. Patrick’s career has provided valuable experience with the product development and validation process as well as manufacturing and assembly of the most technologically advanced machinery in agriculture. Patrick holds a BA of Sociology from Arizona State University and an MBA with a concentration in International Management from St. Ambrose University.