For dairy cows, mastitis is not a matter of if, but when.
One-third of all dairy cows are estimated to have mastitis, according to research from Louisiana State University Ag Center, costing producers roughly $200 per cow each year. About 70% of that dollar figure reflects the milk that dairy farmers have to pour down the drain until the cow’s condition is resolved in addition to costly veterinary treatment.
Cavallo Ventures, the venture capital arm of agricultural products retailer Wilbur Ellis, has made an undisclosed investment in SomaDetect, an in-line sensor startup that measures critical aspects of dairy quality like fat, protein, and, most importantly for mastitis detection, somatic cell counts. Builders.vc also participated in the round.
“From an investment perspective, we were really impressed with the application of the technology, which we believe is highly differentiated. There are several others that claim to detect mastitis but in our opinion, SomaDetect is the most accurate by far,” Amar Singh, director of Cavallo Ventures, told AFN.
SomaDetect’s technology lies in a sensor that attaches to the side of an iPad or tablet device that is attached to the milking hose. Light emits from the sensor into the hose causing particles to scatter in certain directions. A portion of the light may be absorbed or reflected altering the intensity of the scattered beam. Particles of different sizes, in various concentrations, will have unique scattering patterns that can be observed.
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Based on the scatter pattern, the sensor can determine the somatic cell count in the milk, which is a direct indicator of whether the cow has mastitis or may soon develop clinical signs of the condition. SomaDetect uses computer vision and deep neural networks to build algorithms that can predict the presence and concentrations of major compounds in raw milk.
Current methods of mastitis detection leave a lot to be desired. A qualified dairy technician visits the farm once a month to obtain samples that are then sent to a lab. By the time the results arrive a week later, it’s often too late or the cow has already started exhibiting obvious signs of infection.
“Compare this to SomaDetect, which can count cells from each cow twice a day during milking and provide that information to the farmer in real time,” Singh explains. “Real-time data is the key because the cell count rarely spikes abruptly from 100,000 to 500,000 overnight. It increases gradually and if you can monitor the cows continuously then you can flag a cow that is inching closer to the infection threshold and alert the farmer that he or she needs to take action soon.
Cavallo Ventures has been rather active lately, recently backing Seattle-based insect farm Beta Hatch, beef cattle precision ag platform developer Performance Livestock Analytics, imagery analytics platform creator Taranis, and animal-free collagen maker Geltor. The recently launched fund isn’t just looking for good investments, it wants to partner with startups to distribute new products to its customers.
“It can be difficult to identify investors that truly understand the opportunity that exists in the dairy market. Dairy is a half-trillion-dollar global commodity but something that most folks do not think about, even as they’re enjoying their lattes, cheese platters, and ice cream cones,” Bethany Deshpande, CEO of SomaDetect, wrote to AFN. “This investment helps SomaDetect as we transition from collecting tens of thousands to millions of data points from cows across North America. This will impact our ability to build algorithms that matter, and to eventually scale this business.”
And while Singh and Deshpande see many other opportunities to apply this rapid response technology in other capacities on dairy farms including things like breeding and milk quality, earning farmers’ trust is a bigger priority for now.
“Our thesis is that SomaDetect will have an opportunity to expand in the market as they win the trust of their customers by doing one or two things exceptionally well. Then, they can go back and say what do you think of this new tool, or what would you think about this type of solution. You have to win farmers’ trust first by doing simple things right and there is plenty of evidence that SomaDetect is doing this,” says Singh.
Mastitis Technologies Abound
Given the prevalence of mastitis and its cost to farmers, a number of startups are creating solutions to tackle the problem more quickly and accurately. And while some startups may see the crowded landscape as a drawback, dairy farmers need all the help they can get these days as milk prices continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel. More startups offering similar technologies will help drive affordability, which is a key barrier to adoption facing many dairy farmers that already struggle to make ends meet.
“The dairy market is immensely important to us. We think there is a lot of value in the market and that it will rebound. We want to be selling not only animal feed but solutions, technology, and value-added services,” Mike Wilbur, president and CEO of Cavallo Ventures, told AFN. “One of the things that sold us on making an investment in SomaDetect is their success in light of how tough market conditions are right now due to low commodity prices. The growth of SomaDetect despite this is just that much more impressive.”
Deshpande understands that forking over the monthly subscription cost for SomaDetect is a big ask for many farmers but finds hope in farmers’ seemingly universal understanding of the technology’s potential benefits.
“We appreciate all of our early adopters. For dairy farmers joining us as partners in data collection, it is wonderful to see them stepping forward, being patient with us as we collect the data resources that we need, and willing to provide feedback to help us build the best product possible,” she explains. “Of course, innovation in agtech comes from farms and also from leading industry players. Wilbur-Ellis is stepping up as an innovation partner alongside SomaDetect. Wilbur-Ellis understands how feed rationing and selection are influenced based on production, health, and the milk of individual cows. SomaDetect is incredibly excited to be working with Wilbur-Ellis and their farmers to maximize profitability and sustainability.”
Here are a few other startups aiming to tackles mastitis in different ways.
Acumen Detection has developed a rapid on-farm system for detecting mastitis in three hours.
Dutch startup MastiLine develops and manufactures sensors and an automated monitoring system to detect the early signs of mastitis. The startup’s sensors enable dairy farmers to detect mastitis at a subclinical level before visible signs of the disease manifest. It does so by detecting somatic cell counts, which indicate whether mastitis is present. Mastiline is backed by Dutch investment and development agency NOM, Dutch loan financiers Doefonds Fryslân, and early-stage impact investment firm SHIFT Invest.
Another Dutch startup and AgFunder portfolio company Connecterra’s Intelligent Dairy Farmers Assistant “Ida” is an artificial intelligence-powered service that uses data collected from dairy cows that are then processed and analyzed by Ida to detect health issues such as mastitis or lameness at least 24 hours before they are critical.
EIO Diagnostics’s FirstLook Mastitis system uses a multispectral sensor installed at the entrance of the milking parlor to capture an image of the udder as the animal enters. Data from those images are processed through machine learning to identify early indicators of infection.
When it comes to treatment, EpiBiome ,which was acquired by Locus Biosciences, offered bacteriophages therapy, a macromolecular bacterial virus with a bullish disposition that seeks out and destroys specific strains of bacteria, including the cells that cause mastitis in cows.