When it comes to egg production, there’s an unfortunate reality for male chicks: they simply aren’t needed. Their lack of purposefulness comes down to their breed. Egg-laying birds have been bred selectively to do just that, differentiating them from birds bred for meat, which are referred to as broilers in the poultry industry. Some of the most common egg-laying breeds in North America include the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn.
Broilers, on the other hand, include Cornish and Plymouth Rock chickens that have been bred to achieve a 5-pound market weight in less than five weeks. The industrial food system depends on the conformity of processes, speed, and efficiency in order to achieve the economies of scale that keep food plentiful and affordable for the masses. This means that raising the male chicks from egg-laying breeds for meat is simply not viable.
Fortunately, a few startups are trying to unscramble the male chick culling conundrum.
“Every year, 7.5 billion male layer day-old-chicks are exterminated by the egg-production industry since they cannot lay eggs nor be used for meat production. Simply put, commercial hatcheries whose business is to produce female chickens that lay eggs are factories that throw away 50% of their production,” Yael Alter, co-founder and CEO at Israeli startup Soos, told AFN.
“This practice has many ramifications ranging from unnecessary extermination costs, material waste of incubation space, electricity, and water to major animal suffering and abuse.”
Soos recently won the $1 million grand prize of round two of Grow-NY, a global food and agriculture business competition. Its AI-driven software controls customized incubation cells that affect the sex development process in chicken embryos, resulting in more functional female chickens that lay eggs. It essentially transforms male chicken embryos into egg-laying females in ovo using non-invasive and chemical-free sound waves and vibration, according to the startup.
With its new cash infusion, Soos plans to ramp up hiring and build a poultry research hub in New York, which will aim to connect academic research with startups and corporates to commercialize validated research.
Another startup tackling male chick culling is Dutch outfit In Ovo, which has created an automated process that gender tests fertilized eggs before they hatch using existing vaccination techniques from the broiler industry.
A few big companies are catching on to consumers’ distaste for dispatching male chicks, too. In June 2016, trade group United Egg Producers, which represents much of the US egg industry, announced a plan to phase out the killing of male chicks by 2020 using a technology that identifies the sex of the chick in the egg, allowing it to be discarded before a fetus is formed.
Keep reading to learn more from Alter about Soos’ startup journey and its big plans for baby chicks.
AFN: What is your core product?
Yael Alter: Our product is an incubation platform that produces more female layers from the same amount of fertilized eggs incubated during the 21-day egg incubation process. The platform consists of an operation and control software component, a multi-sensor system that collects data on a per-egg level, and an acoustic incubation cell that allows optimal control of the sound emitted from sound speakers. These components operate a proprietary and patented incubation protocol that controls humidity, temperature, CO2 levels and, most importantly, sound frequency and amplitude transmitted to chicken embryos.
Who is your target customer?
We are a B2B company. Our solution’s end-users are commercial hatcheries, while our customers are poultry integrators. Commercial hatcheries are usually owned by poultry integrators as part of a fully integrated value chain that includes parent stock, grandparent stock, feed production, layer-growing, and egg packaging and delivery.
When did you launch, and what growth stage are you at?
Our co-founder, Nashat Haj Mohammad, discovered the phenomena of sex reversal in poultry by simple observation roughly 10 years ago. He has layer chickens in his yard and noticed that in certain conditions more females hatched than males. He conducted experiments in small laboratory incubators for almost five years prior to the establishment of the company, and when he managed to repeat the experiments’ results and get consistent higher female ratios, he started looking for partners to help him take it forward.
Nashat met me at an industry event. I was, at the time, the CEO of an international poultry projects company that built poultry integrators’ facilities. I quickly realized the idea is a solution to the poultry industry’s most pressing problem: male extermination. We then decided to partner and start the company. After raising $400,000 in pre-seed funding from Takwin Labs, the company was set up in 2017. Today Soos has 10 full-time employees, has raised $3.2 million in capital — including the $1 million won in the 2020 Grow-NY competition — and is currently in the pilot stage prior to commercialization.
Who are your investors, and how have they added value beyond capital?
Our investors include VCs, accelerators, an angel investor — who is our vice president of business development — and most recently New York state through the Grow-NY competition. Our largest investors are Israeli VCs who provided us with the connections needed to start the company. Food Tech Accelerator in Italy connected us with one of Italy’s largest poultry integrators to start our first international pilot. The $1 million investment from the state of New York will be used to start our US operations in 2021 and to establish a poultry research hub. Southern Israel Bridging Fund and Takwin, our largest investors, beyond always providing us with inspiration have aided us with finding top talent, more investors, and connections to the industry.
What has your fundraising experience been like to date?
It’s always challenging, especially when you are in the agtech scene. If you are in the livestock arena this is even more challenging. However, when people are exposed to our idea, many times they understand the financial potential and the huge impact it can provide worldwide. The enthusiasm expressed by these people makes all the difficulties worth it.
Who are your competitors? Is there room for more players in your space?
Soos has many competitors. They all work with embryo sex detection solutions. These companies have varying techniques such as genetic modification, MRI, albumin extraction from the eggs, and so on. These methods take several seconds per egg, can hurt embryo incubation, are usually effective only after the seventh day of incubation when the embryo is considered alive and is thus ineffective from animal welfare aspects.
Our biggest advantage is that we provide sex reversal technology, solving not only the animal welfare issue but also the loss of production that results from chick culling. While Soos and its competitors have yet to commercialize, I do not believe there is much room for players in the space due to the heavy capital needed for research and development.
What has been the most surprising aspect of your startup journey so far?
After being the CEO and vice president of various companies in traditional industries, you know what to expect and you can be better planned for the future – while being the CEO of a small startup, everything is dynamic and like a rollercoaster.
There are ups and downs, but it is refreshing to have every day different from the other. The only thing I am not surprised with is that when you have a good idea and the passion to develop it, other people will be infected by your passion and join you on the ride.
What are Soos’s biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge is the acoustic roadblock we currently have. During laboratory experiments in incubators of 70 eggs, we managed to reach 80% female. When moving to industrial incubators of 4,800 eggs, we reached 60% female. The decrease in results is due to the difficulty of transmitting uniform sound waves and managing each egg to hear the same sound. We developed a sensor system with hundreds of data points to help us learn what the eggs hear and optimize our incubation protocol to increase results. The more experiments we conduct, the more results we will have to analyze.
If you could change one agrifood policy, law, or regulation, what would it be – and why?
When comparing startups from the agrifood industry to the cyber industry, for example, you can see that the cyber startups have a huge advantage as their industry is very innovative and is willing to invest in ideas and not only finished products. Unfortunately for Soos and other ag startups, our industry is very traditional and not as innovative. It is very difficult to find industry players or investors who are willing to invest in long-term R&D phases before the final product.
I would urge governments to promote agtech innovation and provide more grants, investments, and subsidies to the agriculture and food sectors as there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions while feeding the growing world population.
What advice would you give to other early-stage agrifoodtech startups out there?
Always think as if you are in your customer’s shoes and always check in with them. It is very important to understand the market need and not assume blindly. I speak with industry professionals at least once a week to understand if there are any new trends or changes in the market. In the end, you are creating a product for your clients, not for yourself.