2017 Best MBAs: Lucas Frye, University of Illinois

Lucas Frye

University of Illinois, College of Business

“Straightforward and Easy-Going.”

Age: 24

Hometown: Easton, IL

Fun fact about yourself: I grew up on a farm in Mason County, Illinois. I am a third-generation farmer. In addition to corn and soybeans, we also grew some specialty crops, including popcorn.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Illinois Agricultural Economics

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Aside from growing up on a family farm, my internship experience was across the ag value chain: gaining exposure to seed production processes with Monsanto to agricultural credit and insurance services with Farm Credit Illinois for two summers and Management Consulting for Adayana Agribusiness Group in Indianapolis.

During my senior year at the University of Illinois, I served as one of three student trustees on the university’s Board of Trustees.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2016? My summer of 2016 was spent developing Amber Agriculture, a startup where I am co-founder and CEO. My focus was primarily on customer discovery by traveling and speaking face to face with over 50 individuals in farming, grain origination, food grade, and agriculture technology. It was my goal to thoroughly examine and understand the problems surrounding postharvest agriculture, an area on which our startup is interested in providing solutions.

I also executed some business model validation techniques around core new technology in wireless sensing, industrial automation, and hardware-enabled software for our product.

Where will you be working after graduation? I will continue building Amber Agriculture as we develop our product for the market. Amber Agriculture is introducing new sensor technology for the agriculture industry that can monitor grain qualities and connect farmers to buyers around high degrees of real-time information. This sensor can enable farmers to optimize the return they receive at the time of sale and also reduce risk due to spoilage.

Last fall, our startup was focused on prototype development as was based in Shenzhen, China. This spring we are continuing to develop the hardware and software for our sensors while sitting in Silicon Valley. Come summers’ end, we will relocate our team to back to Illinois to be near our market long term.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Co-Founder, Amber Agriculture, an Ag Tech Startup. Led business development, strategic partnership relationship management, customer discovery, and fundraising initiatives for rising startup in the agriculture space.
  • Project Manager at Illinois Business Consulting. Led a team of six consultants on an industry analysis for an audit firm to provide primary research on regulatory risk from stakeholder surveys.
  • Research Associate. Conducted data acquisition for Kauffman Foundation report on “State of American Entrepreneurship in Education”
  • Leadership keynote at agriculture college event
  • Guest lecturer on entrepreneurship in agribusiness for College of Agriculture
  • Moderated state legislative primary debate for agriculture community
  • Career mentor for young agricultural students

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Co-founding Amber Agriculture. I was fortunate to meet my co-founder at an entrepreneurship event at the University of Illinois in 2015. As an electrical engineering student, he had a unique idea for a new type of small wireless sensor. We quickly realized a direct application for it within agriculture and were able to build out Amber based on the intersection of interests.

Our work together has had some great success. At the University of Illinois, we won the 2016 Cozad New Venture Competition. Amber Agriculture was also just recently named Best Startup at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (the largest tech convention in the world) by Engadget. We were named to the list of ‘Top 80 Startups Powering the Future of Food and Agribusiness’ by CB Insights.

Over the course of the last 18 months we have stood atop 40 grain bins on farms in Illinois to prototyping in the Shenzhen China the hardware capital of the world, and beginning business development and fundraising conversations in Silicon Valley.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I had exposure to executive-level leadership at a young age through my experience as the Student Trustee on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. As representative for the more than 40,000 students on the Urbana-Champaign campus, I provided the student perspective on strategic initiatives for the ongoing success of one of the premiere land grant universities. Throughout my year of service, I was engaged in c-Suite conversations and worked alongside business and community leaders to address difficult problems, develop possible solutions, and build consensus, often in high-pressure situations.

During my time on the board, I participated in the interviewing and hiring of the university’s 20th president and the establishment of the first new college on the Urbana campus in 60 years—the first-of-its-kind Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Personally, I established a cabinet of student leaders on campus and helped create a statewide student leadership coalition among the 10 other public universities student body presidents and student trustees.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Dr. Raj Echambadi taught the course on Strategic Innovation. He brought a lot of energy to the classroom and did an excellent job of introducing modern examples alongside his own experiences in the industry.

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it?

The Strategic Thinking course of Dr. Echambadi was one that really opened my eyes to understanding what disruption looks like: how it starts, how it grows and how it succeeds against incumbent businesses. We learned how managers of existing firms work to avoid being overtaken and surpassed by new ventures. On the flip side, we learned how startups can effectively enter a market and work to disrupt the current product offerings and business model approaches.

What I learned in this course was directly applicable to what we are building out at Amber Agriculture and how we are thinking about market entry.

Why did you choose this business school? When I was a senior at the University of Illinois, I took a class with the late Dr. Paul Magelli on the foundations of entrepreneurship. This course really opened up the entrepreneurial world to me in a way that was too appealing not to try. Dr. Magelli was a personal mentor that first introduced the idea of pursuing the MBA sooner rather than later. The more we talked, the more I believed he was right.

The Illinois MBA has big plans around enhancing students’ career agility and access to world-class business curriculum. Innovation is a focus. I really believe that looking back ten years from now, it will be evident this program was at the forefront of entrepreneurial instruction and development.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I came into the program with an entrepreneurial bent and a passion for agriculture. I knew I wanted to examine opportunities to develop companies. And the ecosystem of the College of Business at the University of Illinois really encourages that aspiration. With a world-class engineering college and a top-tier agriculture school, the University of Illinois is uniquely positioned to bring business, technology and industry together in a way that would be rare to find at other institutions.

The University of Illinois has a rich tradition of entrepreneurship and the ecosystem and resources available for students to pursue startup ambitions in conjunction with study is what I enjoyed most about the Illinois MBA.

What was the most surprising thing about business school for you? I think I was most surprised by the range of backgrounds and goals of my fellow students. The people I met were interesting and excited about a broad range of long term aspirations. In addition to finance, there were people interested in a variety of marketing opportunities, and there were others like me with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be realistic and focused about your goals. Know what you want out of the program.

What is the biggest myth about your school? That it is in the middle of nowhere, Illinois. There is a lot happening in Champaign-Urbana. You will not find a better campustown.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Through Amber Agriculture, I have been presented with an abundant amount of experiences. But with this success has come some tradeoffs. My co-founder and I spent six months in Shenzhen, China, and then time in Silicon Valley as we worked to develop our product and company.

I spent my second year of the MBA program taking part in classes through Skype and working on independent studies. I relish the experience I have had overseas and in Silicon Valley, but I do miss interacting with my MBA classmates.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Brad Miller, Mitch Blair, and all my classmates who managed business school while having a family to take care of and kids to raise. To me, they are champions.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…the late Dr. Magelli introduced the idea of it me, as I mentioned earlier. But having gone to the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, I was Orange and Blue from the beginning.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…I had some opportunities that were lining up either to go into finance or management consulting in agribusiness or to work in policy with state leadership. But the opportunities I saw in pursuing the MBA early pushed these to the side.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? Mandatory entrepreneurship class first semester, first year. The entrepreneurial mindset is the key skill set MBAs need to build. Everyone is an entrepreneur—most just never have the opportunity to discover it.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To end up back on the farm, while devoting time and energy to initiatives that I care most about: agriculture innovation + entrepreneurship education.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My Family. My mother is the hardest worker I’ve ever met. My father is a farmer by day and a public servant by night. My brother Landon is the textbook definition of a leader, and my other brother Logan is the most natural leader I know.

Finally, the late Dr. Magelli, who is the reason why I joined the MBA program in the first place.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? The guy who tried.

Favorite book: Zero to One

Favorite movie or television show: Hoosiers

Favorite musical performer: All things country… but with earbuds mainly podcasts

Favorite vacation spot: Anymore it is home. The fields of Mason County, Illinois, also known as the Imperial Valley of the Midwest.

Hobbies? Mainly running

What made Lucas such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“I had Lucas Frye as a student in my MBA “Strategic Innovation” course in spring 2016 where he performed very well academically. But more than his performance on the course work, he demonstrated strong leadership abilities with his astute class participation and ability to work as a member of a team in group-based analyses of cases. This course required extensive analysis of Harvard Business cases, and I was very impressed by his quest for excellence. Fellow students respected him for his work ethic, temperament, and character. He also possesses very good oral and written communication skills.  He is very articulate and capable of expressing his thoughts at a very high level.

Lucas has an uncanny ability to look at a situation and see its application to another problem. Nowhere is this more apparent than with his involvement in the startup Amber Agriculture. In 2015 at a startup pitch meeting. Lucas met some University of Illinois engineering students who had been working on a process that they thought could be marketed as a way to wirelessly monitor whether clothing was dry. Lucas’ family farm background helped him quickly see agricultural applications. Lucas led the team in pivoting this technology to develop Amber Waves, a sensor that wirelessly monitors crop storage conditions. This information is essential for farmers to ensure quality crops and the best price for their product.

Lucas’s team has had great success with their product. They won the 2016 Cozad New Venture Competition at the University of Illinois, as well as the IllinoisVENTURES Innovation Award. They the I-Start Prize, which provides startup funding and services to help this promising company. Recently they were named Best Startup at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show by Engadget. As CEO of this startup, Lucas was a dynamic force behind their success.

And Lucas’s his drive is not new. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, he received the Robert M. Harrison Leadership Award in 2014 and the Warren K. Wessels Achievement Award in 2015. He was named to the University of Illinois Senior 100 Honorary (one of the highest distinctions given to an undergraduate), and he served as a student trustee on the university’s Board of Trustees.

Lucas has proven to be an energetic leader with vision and enthusiasm. We are proud to have him as a member of our MBA program. I am excited to see what his future holds.”

Raj Echambadi

Senior Associate Dean for MBA Programs and Strategic Innovation

College of Business


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