Two Victorian entrepreneurs are on track to make chicken farming more profitable, and more ethical.
Eleanor Toulmin and Sarah Last, founders of agtech startup MimicTec, are aiming to have their revolutionary robot chickens out for commercial sale by February, following a successful $450,000 fundraising round.
This has allowed Mimictec to take their robot chickens – or ‘PeckTec’- from a prototype to a marketable product that looks after baby chicks on commercial poultry farms.
PeckTec mimics the function of a hen giving maternal care through teaching chicks how to eat and drink.
Eleanor says as hens don’t rear chickens in commercial farms, they don’t learn normal behaviours automatically.
“Between one per cent and 2pc of chicks die in their first week of life, largely because they don’t work out how to eat and drink,” she said.
“While pecking is an instinctual movement, without maternal care to teach chicks to direct the behaviour towards food and drink, many chicks don’t work it out by themselves.”
Eleanor, previously a strategy consultant with IBM and KPMG, met Sarah, who grew up on a farm that reared and rehabilitated birds, while undertaking their Masters of Entrepreneurship through the University of Melbourne.
From their thesis, MimicTec was born with trials undertaken since.
While primarily confidential because of the nature of the commercial chicken industry, the technology has been impressive enough to raise substantial investment.
Eleanor said one of the largest contributors to this funding round was Scale Angel Investors, who only invest in companies that have at least one female founder and raised $260,000 for MimicTec.
Another important investor was David Roach, Eleanor said, who previously controlled the finance at Inghams, showing confidence from those with industry knowledge.
MimicTec’s aim is to improve livestock farming outcomes by working with farmers to improve animal welfare outcomes – a vision a lot of people could get behind, Eleanor said.
“Making food we can be proud of is a vision and goal investors are buying into,” she said.
But getting people to invest in agtech has still been a challenge, Eleanor said, which is what makes their achievement to get the product to the shelf so exciting for them.
“While there is a lot of movement in the VC (venture capital) space, and the amount of money and deals coming through has grown from even two years ago, a lot of VC companies won’t invest in agriculture,” she said.
“And even less in hardware.
“Knowing the iteration times are longer than they are in software and the sale lead times are longer, it is really exciting that people are willing to support us.”
MimicTec was founded just two years ago, and since then has run numerous trials of their PeckTec product to fine tune it, with the fast 45 day to two month cycle of chicken production facilitating this.
“We have just finished a round of trials that saw a 6pc weight improvement at 28 days, and 10pc feed conversion,” Eleanor said.
“So that was done across two sheds of 25,000 birds.
“The PeckTec shed had a feed conversion of 1.52kg per 1kg of bird produced, while the control shed with the same chicks had a 1.68kg conversion.
“That is only one data point but it is incredibly exciting improvement.
“We are running those trials again to make sure they are replicable as the figures are almost too good to be true.”
Commercial production of PeckTec won’t mean the trials will stop.
Eleanor said one of the benefits of being a startup rather then an established business was seeing their product as “never finished”.
“We are happy to have discussions with farmers about trials as it is important to show them it will work for them as well,” she said.