Friday, July 1, 2022

Students’ startup raises $1 million

Agritech startup ProTag has raised $1 million to fast-track the development of its smart ear tag sensors, which transmit health and location data to dairy farmers within seconds.

ProTag founders Tyrel Glass and Baden Parr will use newly raised funds to fast track product development and validation.

Agritech startup ProTag has raised $1 million to fast-track the development of its smart ear tag sensors, which transmit health and location data to dairy farmers within seconds.

ProTag’s small internet-enabled device clips onto a cow’s ear, allowing farmers to continuously monitor the animal’s health, grazing and breeding habits. Machine learning is used to process data from the device’s temperature, movement and location sensors, helping farmers map animal behavioural patterns and detect the early onset of illnesses in real-time.

Company co-founders and Massey University PhD engineering students Tyrel Glass and Baden Parr formed ProTag last year, which joined the Sprout Accelerator programme in July.

Since then they’ve raised $1m through Sprout’s investment partners, which include US-based Finistere Ventures, Kiwi dairy giant Fonterra and Israeli venture builder OurCrowd, with support from government agency Callaghan Innovation’s Technology Incubator Programme.

Glass said they see a future where every farmer has detailed information on the health and wellbeing of every animal.

“The power of remote sensing in animal health is huge. And ProTag is the gateway into this data, providing advanced analytics for each animal that can map the whole story of the cow and at an accessible price point for all farmers,” Glass said.

He said early detection of mastitis, lameness (leg and foot pain) and reproduction issues – the top ailments facing dairy cattle – can pave the way for more sustainable farming and improves animal welfare.

The idea behind the product, which has been likened to a Fitbit for livestock as it uses movement data to extract behavioural information, came after meeting a young farming couple who wanted help to invent a smart ear tag that could give them insights into their herd’s health.

The ProTag team said there are several aspects that make their approach different to others.

The first is the incorporation of GPS with other metric data into a small, formfactor ear tag.

Other products incorporating the same hardware features are usually attached to an animal’s neck, which can cause problems through being caught on objects around the farm.

The second advantage is a holistic, integrated approach to data analysis, as information from an animal is not viewed in isolation, but rather against a backdrop of geographic farm features such as shelter belts, water troughs and boundary fences.

All the data collected can be fed into continually improving machine learning models targeted at identifying early illnesses.

He said the company’s small, lightweight device is 100 times more power-efficient than other GPS-based devices using bulkier battery packs.

The newly raised funds will be used to accelerate the company’s product development and validation in preparation for large-scale trials planned for later this year, with several expressions of interest generated from farmers in Waikato and the South Island.

While the company has its immediate sights on the New Zealand market, where a farmer’s average dairy herd is 440 cows, Ireland and Brazil have been identified as future markets.

ProTag’s founders credit the Sprout team’s extensive international agritech experience and connections for opening the company’s doors to future growth. 

Sprout investment manager Warren Bebb said the ProTag team embodies much of what it looks for in entrepreneurs: a big vision coupled with engineering smarts that use a clever combination of the latest remote-sensing technologies to bring crucial insights. 

“We are excited to back Tyrel and Baden as they strive to advance the health and profitability of the dairy industry in a sustainable way,” Bebb said.

Prior to their acceptance into the July 2021 cohort of the Sprout Accelerator, ProTag’s founders were the winners of two global engineering competitions, receiving $US25,000 at the Keysight Internet of Things (IoT) Innovation Challenge and winning the 2021 Microsoft Imagine Cup.

Massey computer engineering associate professor and Glass and Parr’s PhD supervisor Fakhrul Alam said they have created potentially game-changing technology for the agritech industry.

“Their engineering smarts, combining cutting-edge remote-sensing technology and artificial intelligence, will bring crucial insights to dairy farmers,” Alam said.

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