When it comes to agtech impacting animal agriculture, we’ve written about IoT technology to track livestock, imaging to test for mastitis in dairy cows, computer vision technology to recognize each cow by her face, and giant digesters to convert manure into biogas. There’s been ample coverage of aquaculture from monitoring fish feed intake through acoustic data analytics to combatting viral infections through biotechnology. And pork has certainly had its moment in our spotlight through the MidWest THRIVE accelerator program backed by the Pork Checkoff program and exploration of how technology might help combat the devastating African Swine Fever.
But we haven’t written much about poultry tech.
“The market is dominated by large equipment manufacturers that have been working the same ways for years. They improve the ventilation, the nests, the feeding system, the lights. The market needs to be disrupted by startups that think out of the box. Most startups are offering technological bricks such as sensors, data mining software, etc, but few are offering full solution products,” Yanne Courcoux, CEO of poultry tech company Tibot, wrote to AFN.
The French startup recently closed a €3 million ($3.3 million) investment round from Demeter and Seventure Partners as well as existing investors Breizh Up and Crédit Agricole Ille-et-Vilaine Expansion. The new funds will be used to make key recruitments in sales, marketing, and operations to support the company’s growth. The US and Canadian markets are priority areas, according to Courcoux, because the company already makes 35% of its revenue in North America where it has ambitious development plans.
The round was the company’s second foray into the VC ring, but it still took roughly six months, according to Courcoux, and with only six people on the team. But it managed to attract the two major players in agtech in Demeter and Seventure.
Better bird health through robotics
The company designs robots intended to increase the technical and economic performance of poultry operations and to improve the breeder’s work conditions. Since launching, it has worked as close to the field as possible so that it can better realize the heavy constraints that the poultry industry is working against when it comes to improving animal welfare while also increasing profitability for poultry operations.
The company’s origin story begins with a couple of poultry farmers, Laetitia and Benoit Savary, who were concerned with the rate of eggs being laid on the floor of the houses and not in designated nest boxes. Meeting new de-medication rules and ever-increasing quality requirements were other concerns.
So they designed a robot called Spoutnic to circulate the broiler house seven days a week to encourage the flock to move around, which is particularly helpful for the laying hens who otherwise have a tendency to lay eggs on the house floor. By limiting the number of floor eggs, Spoutnic helps reduce the labor required to scoop errant eggs off the floor, as well. And more intact eggs protected in nests means more income for the farmers.
Tibot recently extended its range of solutions with the launch of a second robot, Spoutnic NAV, for broilers.
“Spoutnic NAV is equipped with an indoor navigation system enabling it to navigate with precision according to a self-generated or user-defined trajectory. It navigates in the poultry house to move the flock around. It stimulates the natural activity of chicks and boosts their weight gain and improves the feed conversion ratio. Equipped with a scraper adaptable to the bedding condition, the robot scrapes and aerates the litter to reduce the compacting and humidity that trigger fermentation. As a result, the birds are in better health,” Courcoux explains.
Today, its robot is being used by major players including Hubbard, Le Helloco, Agrial, LDC, Prodavi, and ISHII, according to Tibot. Its clients purchase robot fleets for their internal farms or to loan to their growers.
“The robot allows them to address the changing requirements of animal welfare. We also have individual growers that want to improve their revenue and working conditions or who cannot find enough workers,” Courcoux adds.
A number of US states have enacted heightened standards intended to provide poultry with better welfare. In 2008, California passed Prop 2 which required poultry farmers to get rid of battery cages and to ensure that hens have enough room to stretch their wings, turn around freely, and engage in other movements. Since then, several other states have enacted similar reforms including Washington.
In the EU, the European Chicken Commitment, which aims to provide better welfare conditions for poultry produced in the region, has garnered support from a number of food companies including Sodexo, Compass Group, Danone, Aramark, and most recently KFC. Each year, seven billion birds are raised in Europe, with 90% located in grow houses in large-scale farms.
Although the welfare improvement was largely welcomed by consumers, it placed an immediate challenge in the industry’s lap. Major improvements and renovations were required to modify existing battery cage-dependent housing systems or other existing housing setups to cage-free colony housing systems. This has caused many poultry producers to seek solutions to combat some of the consequences of group housing like laying hens dropping their eggs outside of nest boxes where the eggs are protected and collection is easy.
Poultry tech: the next investor frontier
From Courcoux’s perspective, poultry tech and especially robotics are new fields for investors.
“Do you see a lot of innovation in livestock? The agtech revolution is still to take place in this field. But figures are speaking for themselves: poultry is the number one meat consumed in the world (+ 3.5% per year) with a lower environmental impact. The poultry industry needs to produce more but differently to meet customers’ demand in animal welfare. At the same time, there is a lack of workforce. Our addressable market increases naturally by 6-7% per year because most countries are turning to cage-free production.”
Investors seem to be steadily increasing their interest in livestock-related technologies, with Cargill recently bringing robotics to its processing facilities in the form of a remote-controlled herding robot for livestock, for example. Merck acquired digital livestock tech company Antelliq for $2.4 billion last year marking the biggest agtech acquisition on the record and Seventure Partners launched a €24 million livestock tech fund with Adisseo to focus on animal health, feed, and nutrition.
As the challenges of poultry farming increase, the industry may soon find an increased appetite for innovation.
“Tibot Technologies’ robots provide an innovative response to the new challenges of poultry farming. The sector is growing rapidly, and it is undergoing a profound transformation. Of course, production must rise to deal with global population growth, but it is important to produce better, so as to meet consumer expectations and the need to take animal welfare into account. And all this must be done in a context of scarce agricultural manpower. We are proud to support the company whose management has a clear vision of the development of the sector and has thus developed products that offer very pragmatical responses to the needs of poultry farmers,” stated Riadh Shaiek, a partner at Demeter, and Isabelle de Cremoux, Seventure Partners chairperson, in a press release announcing the funding.