U of S alumnus on solid ground after winning business competitions

The idea had been percolating in Lyndon Lisitza's mind for some time, and what happened after his dad sold the family farm solidified his resolve to turn an idea into a viable, marketable product.

In 2008, Lisitza's dad was ready to move into retirement and sold the mixed-grain farm that was his livelihood for over three decades. A week later, the Calgary-based energy company that bought the land called asking about possible renters.

"It seemed like a rather inefficient way to conduct a land transfer, so I set out to develop a more efficient marketplace for the land rentals process," explained Lisitza (MSc'12), who was pursuing his Master of Science in agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan at the time.

With the sale and rental of farmland being largely community-based—word of mouth and advertisements in local publications are the norm—Lisitza knew there was a huge opportunity to capitalize on his idea. He identifies a lack of competition and poor price discovery methods among the shortcomings of the current process. "I wanted to develop a system to allow landowners and farmers to have an efficient mechanism to determine land values and decrease land transfer costs for farmers."

And Renterra Farmland Rental Auctions was born.

Renterra is an online marketplace connecting land owners and farmers seeking land to rent. Instead of looking at individual pieces of land, farmers can get the big picture to "see a piece of land that can complete a section or fill a block close to their home quarter or base of operations." The manual process can take two or three weeks. Renterra can take that down to one day.

Lisitza explained it is becoming more common for people that live in another province or country to own farmland, through an inheritance for example. "I want to put as many checks and balances in place to mitigate risks for both land owners and farmers who are going into a transaction with someone they haven't met before." And it's not always about the highest bid for land owners. "They might want to rent to someone that is a good steward, so land owners can allocate conditions."

Taking a long-contemplated idea to market doesn't happen overnight or in isolation. So when Lisitza heard of a couple business concept competitions that could help him progress, he dove right in. The i3 Idea Challenge (sponsored by the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence at that U of S) and the Tech Venture Challenge with the university's Industrial Liaison Office (ILO) forced him to put pen to paper. Entering competitions "really forces you to think about your idea, to sit back and ponder some of the shortfalls. It puts things in perspective; it makes it more real when you go through the process."

In May, Lisitza was announced the winner of the i3 Idea Challenge, receiving a cash prize and in-kind professional services. At the same time, he was announced a finalist in the Tech Venture Challenge, beginning six months of business plan development under the guidance of the ILO. "I was put in touch with the right people to take the concept into a concrete useful product for the public. That was a pretty intense process," said Lisitza.
Earlier this fall Lisitza won the Tech Venture Challenge, further validating the concept and taking him one step closer to a marketable product. The $50,000 cash prize, free office space at Innovation Place for a year and $6,000 of accounting services from Deloitte will go a long way. "I was willing to take the risk whether I won or not because I really believe it will be successful. Startups are pretty high risk, so [the prize money] allows me go ahead and gives me a little breathing room."

Renterra will officially launch at Brett Wilson's Pitch Party November 16. And that same week Lisitza hopes to make it a hat-trick by winning the Startup Open, a feature event of Global Entrepreneurship Week selecting a winner from the 50 most promising startups in the world.

Lisitza runs Renterra while juggling a young family and his day job as a policy analyst for the Government of Saskatchewan. "I get minimal amounts of sleep, but I'm relatively young, so you might as well make hay while the sun shines."

That may change soon. "In the next six months my plans are to expand within North America and into Australia and New Zealand." Those two foreign markets are similar to Canada demographically and land rentals are increasing. Timing has a lot to do with it too. Lisitza pointed out there's "only about a five to seven month window" between harvest and seeding during which farmers are actively seeking rental land. With the differential in seasons, "my season wraps up here, and it's prime rental season there."

Lisitza is quick to say he has learned two lessons through the process of developing his concept into a business: network and talk to people whenever possible, and give back when you can. "I've had so many instances where I've made some time consuming mistakes that could have been avoided with one phone call," said Lisitza. "Reciprocate and show interest if you ever have the opportunity. I recognize the help I've had and am willing to put my limited services, or anything I can offer, out there to help other people."

Submissions for the 2013 Tech Venture Challenge are being accepted until November 30, 2012.
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