Humans are not alone in experiencing complications related to pregnancy and birth. Any livestock farmer who has spent some time in the trenches can regale you with a tale or two about moonlight bovine midwifery or the art of repositioning a backward lamb in the unaccommodating birth canal of a labor-weary ewe.
“The swine industry is heavily reliant on caregivers and there isn’t a good way to track what works well for those who do a good job. This is a job that requires training, intuition, and experience. There isn’t an easy and quick way to onboard new people,” Matthew Rooda, SwineTech CEO, told AFN. “
The Iowa-based startup developed SmartGuard, a farrowing platform for swine houses that monitors all things pregnancy and piglet related. The company’s technology is designed to monitor and analyze data around sow health and to identify any signs that trouble is brewing with her impending brood. This could be anything from a flux in temperature to signs that labor is imminent. Although the majority of livestock give birth without human assistance, having a pair of hands on deck to intervene can mean the difference between life and death.
SwineTech has just closed a $5 million Series A1 round led by Innova Memphis with participation from existing and new investors Johnsonville Ventures, Ag Ventures Alliance, Quake Capital, SVE Capital, The Berkeley Catalyst Fund. The round follows a 2017 $1.3 million Series A that the company raised when it was focused on preventing sows from crushing piglets. Also joining in the Series A round is Johnsonville Ventures/MSAB Capital, an investment arm of Johnsonville Sausage that invests in early-stage companies in the life sciences and emerging technologies industries.
The funding will primarily be used to ramp up sales and marketing for its second-generation suite of products once Covid-19 passes. For now, Rooda is holding the new capital close to his chest. Over the past year, the company has focused on expanding its team and securing partnerships with some of the largest pork producers in North America as well as Kansas State University and North Carolina State University. A portion of it will go towards expanding the technology and adding computer vision to monitor birth and animal development at a deeper level.
The concept came from a blending of Rooda’s time working as a medication aid in healthcare and his background growing up in a hog-raising family. With the advent of modern medical technology, nurses no longer have to make frequent rounds and disturb patients to obtain vitals and assess their status. The machines do the alerting for them.
“We want to bring this to the pork industry. Caregivers in a farrowing house will be responsible for monitoring 20 to 100 mothers and ensuring there are no complications,” Rooda explains. “It’s not trying to replace caregivers it’s trying to streamline the work. If someone is going in to check the sows they will start at number one and go down the line when maybe they should have started at six because she needs the most help.”
The massive swine industry is rife with opportunities for technological innovation. Pressure from African Swine Fever, consumer demand for better welfare in meat production, and environmental concerns are all bearing down on an industry where producers operate under thin margins. The National Pork Board recently dedicated resources to support innovation through the new MidWest THRIVE Accelerator program, but some in the industry are less keen on a radical and sweeping technological renaissance in pork production.
Despite the growing popularity and maintream-ification of agtech, however, investors often need quite a bit of education to spark their interest, according to Rooda. The swine industry is a unique market that a VC would likely want to study before making an investment. And unless the firm planned on making a string of investments in the space, the one-off deep dive down the porcine rabbit hole can be unalluring.
Still, a few startups have narrowed their entrepreneurial efforts on enhancing swine production through technology. Ro-Main and Sentinel offer technologies to count pigs while SoundTalks is developing a tool to identify coughing in pigs as an early disease detection tool and EveryPig created a software platform to track pig health. Rooda has also seen an uptick in the use of computer vision to estimate the weights of finishing hogs ahead of processing. Species agnostic Transport Genie is hoping to take some of the welfare concerns out of hauling animals, too.
“The neat thing about the swine tech industry right now is that everyone is very collaborative. We know a lot of of these folks and while they are competing in some ways I also think of them as colleagues.”