PhD Student Develops App to Help Coffee Growers in his Native Colombia

Sept. 13, 2022

Llano-Rios brews up app for coffee growers

Passion for caffeine and tech skills lead to development of app for coffee growers in his homeland.

By Holly Hinson

Colombia native Tomas Felipe Llano-Rios is, perhaps not surprisingly considering his birthplace, a coffee connoisseur. The current PhD student in Computer Science & Engineering is taking that caffeine passion and his tech skills to help coffee growers from his hometown. He and two friends, software engineers and former classmates still in Colombia, have created an app for coffee growers from Medellin and other neighboring towns to better reach potential coffee buyers and market their products.  One of those towns is Santa Fe de Antioquia.

“It is a small town where they are very well known for producing a high quality coffee. I looked at issues they were having like management, distribution, logistics and others, so I thought maybe we could incorporate different business models into a digital platform,” said Llano-Rios. “Our ultimate idea is to see if we can export the coffee they produce to the States.” The coffee app trio meets virtually on weekends and some weeknights to work together on the app.

The coffee app, in its first iteration, is currently only in Colombia and in the Spanish language, but will ultimately help potential buyers from the United States buy coffee from growers in the region. The app will feature all the different coffees and different aromas, flavors and growing profiles.

“You can take a quiz, and it gives you suggestions on coffees based on how much acidity you like, what aromas and flavors because many Colombian coffees are based on different fruits,” he said. “The app and website not only gives you a description of the different coffee profiles, but also information about the farm, how the beans are grown and cultivated. For specialty coffees, there is an international association that rates coffees in terms of aroma, fragrance and other things.”

In addition to selling coffee through the app, Llano-Rios said he hopes to develop new features to promote eco-tours and coffee tasting events, which currently are handled by word of mouth and by phone. “We want to have a singular platform where not only can customers know and learn about what they are doing with their businesses, but also be able to subscribe and look at their events, have an online reservation system and make it easier for them to manage all their information and technology.”

The newly created app attracted the attention of Speed School Technology Solutions, who happened to be looking for a graduate assistant, and hired Llano-Rios for the job in August 2022 after seeing the app and other projects he had been working on. Llano-Rios will be working with IT on automation of business tasks, data streaming and analyzing information.

For Llano-Rios, who completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science in his hometown of Medellin, (the capital of Santa Fe de Antioquia), his path to Speed School and the United States began through a part-time job in Colombia at an HPC (High Performance Computing) research company. “My boss recommended me to a professor he knew at Speed School, Dr. Antonio Badia, Associate Professor in Computer Science and Engineering, who was looking for a student to work in his research lab,” said Llano-Rios. “Once Dr. Badia and I connected, we found we had many common interests, so I moved to the United States and came to Speed School.”

After Llano-Rios completed his Master’s degree, one of those common interests – databases – became the focus of his current PhD research, which he began in summer 2020.  “My PhD project is document databases, so my task is to build something called a meta data store, which basically aids in getting a more efficient processing of queries, so that reading performance is faster when it comes to somebody asking the database, “Hey, I want this information” or “I want to compute this information based on the information that I already have,” he said.

Llano-Rios said learning to optimize these processes is important since companies today are dealing with massive data sets that they can’t store on a single system. “I am interested in all the algorithms of databases, and how you use them to create an entire system that works for storing, reading and processing data, and other transformations.”

What is intriguing about this work to the doctoral student? “In engineering, and specifically in computer science, it is just the fact that I can create,” said Llano-Rios. “When you come up with new ideas to solve different problems, it’s always interesting to see how they develop, the pros and cons, and then implement them and see if they actually work or not,” he said.

Speed School has offered Llano-Rios a plethora of opportunities to learn new things, something he particularly enjoys. “In the Ph.D. when you take some of the classes, they’re very diverse,” he said. “It’s not like all classes are about databases, there are classes about artificial intelligence or distributed systems or other topics,” said Llano-Rios. “Having that diversity of classes gives me a broader picture on computer science and many other fields that I’m now exploring, even if they are not necessarily directly related to my research.”

While Llano-Rios continues his work with his team on the coffee growers’ app, his post- PhD plans are to go into industry. “I have had the opportunity to do research for a long time so I would like to try something different and I’m just looking at possibilities right now,” he said. Llano-Rios hopes to return to Colombia one day but right now, there is so much more he wants to learn and explore here. “What I like the most about my work is coming up with new ideas.”

But back to the app, why coffee? “I just love the taste,” said Llano-Rios.