New biotechnology to monitor herd health | Tim Cannon | Boma New Zealand | Grow 2019 Agri Summit


Kaila Colbin: So can we just start let me ask you what is EmbediVet?
Tim Cannon: So EmbediVet is a small implantable device that gets
placed into the neck of the cow. And what it does is it begins to take vital signs
and biological information, runs it through some machine learning, and then begins to
make predictions about the cow. So things like is it in estrus? Is it getting a
disease? It can identify things potentially before they actually would
become outwardly symptomatic, which is good because then you can kind of reduce
things like antibiotic use and that sort of thing in a more precision way.
Kaila: So this is like it’s a little device and you stick it into the cow and where on the cow does it get embedded?
Tim: Yes, so it goes into the neck; that’s not an arbitrary
choice either we do that so that we can get the head position, which is
indicative of a number of conditions with the cow, and then if you can get
grazing motions, right? Yeah, so you can you can the heads facing down and the jaws
moving then it’s grazing. If it’s kind of sitting up in its group moving its
ruminating. And those are also indicative of a lot of conditions that cows have.
Kaila: And was there something with the way that the cows get processed in the
abattoir as well that was useful for the neck position?
Tim: Oh yeah, well yeah, absolutely you remove the head at the neck or so you know when
they come in for processing and that makes it easier to reclaim so that it
doesn’t go back into the food system because you know you don’t want to you
don’t want to microchip in your burger. Kaila: Correct, I do not want a microchip in my
burger. Now I understand you have some stuff — something to show us — can we get
something? We’ve got some some live data maybe? What are we looking at here up on the screen?
Tim: So this is the, on our test farm, we actually have cows that are
implanted with these devices. And this is their activity levels and their heart
rate over time. And we’ve obviously changed the names of the cows to protect
the innocent. But so, but you can see there where the activity is actually
mirrored, but not identically. So you have you know this one guy — who we call Eris —
who’s you know a little bit more lazy than say Gerald — Gerald looks like a
little bit more of a go-getter. You know and this sort of thing but yeah at the
end of the day. And that’s one of the things that’s interesting is that these
cows they have similar behaviours — obviously it’s a herd mentality — but at
the same time they actually are individuals. They’re unique, and they have unique biological patterns.
Kaila: So this is a live feed coming through from Eris and Gerald? Tim: Yeah.
Kaila: We’re basically spying on them. Do
we have approval or authorisation from them to observe this data? Privacy, consent forms?
Tim: Yeah they sign consent forms. Just a hoof mark on a little piece of paper. Kaila: Great, I understand we’re
going to be pushing this link out through the app so that you can have a
look at it and see exactly what kind of stuff you can look at. And then
do you derive additional data beyond heart rate and activity? Is there …
what else do we get to learn?
Tim: Oh yeah, so we do temperature and oxygen saturation of the
blood, but then from there we can extrapolate a number of useful criteria.
So activity and things like that are related to things like estrus. And most
problems like that would be contagious… have a signature fever spike that can’t
be detected by the farmer until many days later — at which point you start to
lose productivity and then even if you’ve treated the animal it will
continue to lose productivity for the next couple of days. And then you
actually have to kind of make a decision: maybe I send little Bessie off to the
abattoir a little early. So at the end of the day, this is the kind of thing that
we want to try to mitigate for the farmer.
Kaila: And how big of a deal is this? Like, why is this important?
Tim: Well I think that this, I mean, I think it’s
massively disruptive. But I think that what was interesting for us is we we
went around and we interviewed a lot of farmers, and what we found was that they
they actually really loved their skill set. They liked what they do. What
they really didn’t like was that they had to spend a lot of time doing things
that were just about checking up on stuff, right? So I talked to one farmer
and he said that every day, like when there was a heifer out there that was,
you know, going to, going to give birth, he would have to wait. He set an alarm every
two hours, get up, get on his coveralls, go out, check, make sure a calf wasn’t stuck,
go home, go to bed for another two hours, and then do the whole thing again. And
they just they hate this sort of thing. But what they would like is a cow
that can kind of raise its hand and say, “Hey I’m sick,
come tend to me,” and then their skill set springs into into being — and they do
their jobs and they love it.
Kaila: So you could like, connect this to an alarm, for
example? Something that pings you, or wakes you up, or you know, automatically
calls you when the cow is actually giving birth? And then you only have to
get up once, when you’re actually needed.
Tim: Yeah you’d get a text
message something like, you know, “hey it’s been 30 minutes of labor activity;
maybe you should go check.”
Kaila: Right; awesome. And I know this is a startup but how
close is this to commercialization? Tim: I’d say we’re about six months out from
commercialization at most. We’re starting… we have our test farms, and then we’re
actually doing some tests at some agricultural universities that the focus
on that sort of thing. So Charles Sturt University, University of New England —
we’re starting a trial on Monday. So and we’re trying to just make sure that we
have good validation in an independent way. Once we have that it’s, it’s kind of,
we’re just gonna ramp up the sales machine. And really go at it. We also have
two of the largest beef producers in Australia signed on for commercial
pilots — so we’re pretty enthused about that. Kaila: Awesome. Tell us about the very first trial that you did. What was that?
Tim: Oh, that was, well the first one we did was April of
last year and that was University of… Utah State University… over in America.
And that was just a very small trial but just to make sure that the animals were
comfortable and that they were not, you know, that there was not gonna be any
signs of rejection or infection and it actually went better than we thought. You
know it’s a much larger device than we have now. And the cows just… I mean after
about two hours, they’re just, they’re fine. They don’t even notice. And so they
seem to like it. And they, they seem to like it actually better than collars and
these sorts of other solutions — simply because once it’s part of them, I mean,
they’re not going to try to like, they’ll try to knock off a collar; they typically
don’t try to knock off their own skin. Okay.
And how long does it last? Like, does it need a big battery? Do they have to wear,
like, a battery pack on? Or how does it, how does that work? No, so we tuned it so
that the sample rate would give the device about three years of time. And the
typical lifespan of these animals is about 18 months so we wanted to do about double that.
And so, at the end of the day, these are, these are more than enough to
handle the lifetime of the animal. We have a question from the audience which
is: “are you doing any work with tattoo style sensors? So sensors that go on the
skin rather than under the skin? Um no, we no we kind of we feel that like the
integration of the technology — the tattoo ones they kind of like peel off
eventually, and this sort of thing — we just rather just be fully integrated
into the biology rather than, kind of, something that you constantly
have to stick on yourself and maintain. I mean there’s other
people that are doing that; they’re doing it way better than we would. So I
like, I’d let the experts handle it. Yeah now, I know you would never be so
reckless as to test something on cows without putting it through some robust
other testing first. Can you tell us how you first started testing this kind of
concept? Yeah so I come from a kind of a tradition called bio-hacking.
And basically, what we do is, you know, we kind of try to find little low-grade
superpowers that we can kind of get and we test that stuff on ourselves. So for
example, a couple years ago I did an implant that myself that took my
temperature once over every five seconds kicked it out over Bluetooth. Then they
built a thermostat at my house so that when I would get cold my house would
automatically heat up, and vice versa. And this sort of thing, this is really where
my passion lies is integrating biology with the digital world and making the,
making our kind of surroundings kind of adapt to us in a seamless way. And so we
kind of joke around a lot and say kind of “it’s safe for cows we test it on
humans –no problem”. Okay. So I’m just gonna ’cause I, ’cause I know a little bit about you
so just ask you a bunch of leading questions barbecue I think you’re so interesting.
where…one of your first implants where did you put it? Because we had that
question about tattoo sensors or, where did it, where — right, don’t worry this
is not about to get awkward.
I have a little tattoo here and I actually took
the one, the temperature sensor one, and I put it underneath this tattoo
because it had some green LEDs. And so I was able to, like, get this kind of creepy
back glow light to my tattoos that kind of like, awesome looking, and so, uh yeah,
we did that. And we had a little, like, “Easter egg” in it so there was a setting
you could set it on it would do party mode and then it would actually like,
strobe the lights to the rhythm of “Safety Dance”. Ridiculous. And I mean how does like, airport security deal with you? Oh man, so when I, when I did the one here
it was, it’s fairly large so if you guys go to look it up later just
like, content warning, it’s a little bit scary looking. But, but at the end of
the day, we you know, I was, I was walking out at Düsseldorf Airport when, and when,
I got it done. And you go through the scanner and they, you know, have you put
your hands up and the woman like looked at the scanner and just went. She called
her boss over and the boss looks over and he goes “just let him go” —
that was it. I just walked right through. I mean it could have been anything — it could have been uranium. I guess you’re willing to implant uranium in your arm… Yeah,
right, okay. Let’s cut let’s come back to EmbediVet,
which is what you’re here to talk about, so, so you said maybe about six
months away from commercialisation. You’re doing some big, big trials in
Australia. You’re doing some big trials in the US. Let’s say someone in New
Zealand wanted to access this product — is that possible? How do they go about it?
What does that look like? Oh yeah, absolutely, I mean we’d like to do trials
here in New Zealand. Um, we, we have some funding through Meat & Livestock
Australia and we’re kind of focused on the the red meat industry and New
Zealand is one of the only places that we can go outside of that market without
kind of violating some of the terms that were put on us from Meat & Livestock
Australia. So actually, it’s beneficial to us to actually introduce the product
here. This is one of the only other markets that we can without incurring
like, some sort of royalty or something like this.
So at the end of the day, we, we are, we’re very eager to kind of work with New
Zealand to introduce this product on. Yeah, awesome. And I’m sure anyone who’s
potentially interested in this product is gonna want to know the answer to the
next question which is: how much does it cost? So we focused heavily on price
point because we know that the, the margins are extremely tight. And even
though we know our value proposition is pretty heavy, we know that farmers… this it just… doesn’t matter… I mean over a certain
amount and farmers can’t handle it. So what we did was we we looked at how much it would cost to produce it and then we realised that we couldn’t do that
economically and get it to the price point we wanted to for farmers. So we
went back to the drawing board and we actually made it reusable and so
basically once it’s reclaimed at the abattoir it can be re-put into the
population. So at that point you can spread the price over, over the cost of
you know, over many, many lives accounts. And so we’re looking at a price point of
about five to ten dollars a head. We’re still trying to exactly work it out but
at the end of the day, that we think we can deliver the value proposition
effectively at about a five or ten dollar price point. Awesome. And do you, do you need, like, a specialist person to implant the product? Or how does that
work? Well that’s, that’s another thing we focused on because we know that if you
have to call a veterinarian out that’s going to be a problem,
right? So we hired a very, very slick mechanical engineer named Roger Foot and he had worked with several different implants. Cochlear implants, some heart
pacemaker stuff. And he is building us this sort of applicator piece that you
can, kind of, just, it’s almost like a, like a piercing gun for like piercing ears,
right? So you just kind of walk up and any old person can just kind of… [implant sound]…and then
right into the, right into the… where it needs to go. And it’s fine and everything
works works the way it should. You mean like, you mean, even like, any old person can do it.
Not like any “old person” could do it? No… a farm, a farmhand can do it. Basically it
would be under, under the animal husbandry rather than veterinarian, right?
And that’s really what we wanted to focus on. Because if you have that
bottleneck, the farmers are just gonna be there “this is nonsense; I don’t want ya”.
And what’s been the feedback so far from the trials that you’ve run? Um well, the
feedback’s been great — it’s a, you know, I’ve been, I’ve been working in software
and new products development all my, all my career — my entire career and this is
probably one of the very few times where we’ve just done something and it worked.
And that was… that’s such a rare thing in software and, and development so that was… it was really nice for it to be this, this opportunity rather than, you know,
like when I was building like, accounting software somewhere. But yeah, so it’s… and the feedback from the farmers is obviously, you know, this is good data.
This is exactly what we want to see. We want to know these things about our, our
animals. And it’s, it’s helpful. So, so far; so good. And the people who are actually
adopting our private trials are actually saying things like, well, because we said:
well, we’re gonna reclaim them after a year because we need to analyze the
implants and make sure that there’s nothing else going on. And they’re kind
of saying: well, we want to change the contract; we don’t want to give the
implant back. And stuff like that. And we can. So we’ll just give you the new one.
It’s, it’s fine, you know? We have another question from the audience which is: “what
kind of regulatory approvals would you need in order to launch this in the US?
Is it a USDA thing? Is it an FDA thing? (That’s a Food and Drug Administration or
US..mmm…administration?). So it was really strange we went around to try to look for all of this
stuff and we see, you know, who’s regulating this. And we contacted every
agency we could and every single agency was like “not us; it’s probably these guys”.
And we just went around and then it turned out that you just, just completely
unregulated. Like nobody wants to talk “hot potato”. And we’d set aside a whole
bunch of money in our budget for dealing with regulations and then it was like: “No?
Okay, all right, I’ll just didn’t plant a bunch of cow make, cyborg cows all day
man, that’s fine”. So it’s basically, so it’s basically the, the, the barrier is
your relationship with the Australian organisation — it’s not the regulatory? And
even in Australia there’s very, very little regulation going on in terms of
the the implant. Most people are just, kind of, pointing to the other people.
The applicator piece is the part that could be regulated but when we contacted
the regulatory agencies they were like: “well, we don’t think we’re gonna have a
problem with that, but thank you for contacting us” — because apparently nobody does that. Apparently, everybody just brings it to
market and then waits for somebody to slap them on the hand. So they were
thrilled that we were actually willing to ask. Can I just ask you: you were
chatting with my — I don’t know if any of you saw the young boy who was here
yesterday — but my 11 year old stepson. You were, you were having a chat with him. You
were telling him about some other implants that you have that allow you to feel, you
know….tell us?
So I have a magnet implanted in my… a rare earth magnet implanted in my finger.
And what it does is it allows me to feel electromagnetic fields like: live wires
behind walls, and microwaves, and hard drives working. I once actually
troubleshot a laptop power bridge issue with just my hands like, and kind of like,
looking feeling it and that sort of thing. People kind of said I was a wizard —
and I agreed, you know, in this sort of thing. So yeah, no I’m… it was adding a
sense, right? And when I heard about this phenomenon and realised that was
possible, I mean, I’m the kind of guy where curiosity tends to trump safety
sometimes. And um, so when I heard about it, I heard about it in April and by May
I had a magnet in my finger. I was just running around feeling all this kind of
stuff and it was it was really interesting. And I just don’t want to
live a life that’s boring — so, yeah. I don’t think anyone will ever accuse
you’re living that’s boring. We have time for one last question: “Where can this technology go? And so
beyond heart rate, beyond cattle, what is the… what is the kind of ultimate
application for this stuff?” Well, I mean I think ultimately you’re talking about
looking into the human population and beginning to mitigate preventable
diseases. And preventable diseases are something like two-thirds of the cost of
the European healthcare system. And it probably translates into the same. So
there’s like one trillion dollars — that’s trillion with a T, right?
You know, in Europe, for example. And if you can prevent these preventable
diseases… I mean, I think that that’s getting to patient level zero, right? And,
and been preventative rather than reactive — that’s where I see it going. And
that’s what I want. I want to help. I want to help the world and I’m gonna start
with cows. But you know, hey, move on to humans soon. Awesome. And you told me that there is an interesting thing about the way that humans reacted to the idea of
implants? Oh yeah, yeah. So when, when we were first doing it and we just were
doing… focusing on the human side… people kind of be like: “oh I don’t know, implant
under my skin — that sounds, yeah, I don’t know about that”. But then, when you tell
people that you’re doing this with a cow they immediately go: “wow my grandfather
could use that because this, this and this. “Or would you be using it for humans?”
And so, if you let them kind of come to it on their own apparently it’s less “icky” so that’s basically gonna be my strategy with all
of you. Awesome. So safe for cows; testing on
humans. And then ultimately it will be safe for humans; tested on cows. That’s
right. Awesome. Tim, I swear I could talk to you all day. Thank you so much for
joining us here Tim Cannon everybody! Thank you Tim