Smart farming

Background last update:7 Mar 2019

Aidan Connolly, Cainthus CEO: "Visual recognition transformational for livestock"

Cainthus develops technology based on visual recognition of cows. Aidan Connolly, CEO of the company, will be speaking at the upcoming F&A Next event, where start-ups, investors and corporates will meet each other.

Not so long ago, Aidan Connolly worked as Chief Innovation Officer at animal nutrition company Alltech, always looking for innovative start-ups to work together with. A couple of weeks ago he made the switch to become the CEO of a start-up instead. Mr Connolly now stands at the helm of the Ireland-based startup Cainthus, that develops livestock technology. Mr Connolly entered as a CEO with high expectations of Cainthus and believes that the technology the start-up develops will be transformational in the livestock sector. He is not the only one with high expectations; protein giant Cargill also entered as an investor and into a partnership with Cainthus last year.

Farmers are excited about the technology

Cainthus develops technology based on visual recognition of cows. By using cameras in the barn, the behaviour of cows is tracked and is turned into actionable data for the farmer. The focus is now on dairy, but plans are being made to expand to other livestock such as pigs and poultry. Cainthus was founded in 2016 and within 3 years, the start-up grew to 45 employees and is now testing its technology in ‘quite a number’ of dairy farms. “We are now in the phase of getting the technology ready for commercialisation. The farmers who are now involved, about 17 in Ireland and the United States, are very excited about the technology”, he says.

Aidan Connolly: “We are now in the phase of getting the technology ready for commercialisation." Photo: Margaret Moore
Aidan Connolly: “We are now in the phase of getting the technology ready for commercialisation." Photo: Margaret Moore

Lack of information

According to the new CEO, the visual recognition is the new promising technique ‘of tomorrow’ to improve the status of the herd. “Wearables have been successful and are the most used tool of today. But they are breakable, need a lot of hardware in the barn and often do not give actionable information to farmers”, Mr Connolly adds. For the long term, he believes that the camera technique will be more effective in relation to the costs than wearables. “At this time, a lot of farmers have a lack of information about their herd. They have limited knowledge about feed or water intake, and these factors are very important to know to assess the health status of the animals. Cows that don’t eat or drink often have a problem. With the real-time animal recognition, fast intervention by farmers is possible.” Mr Connolly adds that looking at more data points is important. “When you only look at individual milk production, and sees that one cow produces more than average, you might think that is a good thing. However, when you can combine this information with the information about feeding behaviour, you might find out that this cow is less efficient in its feed conversion.”

Roots in agriculture

There are also challenges for the new technique. Dust, dirt and water may blur the sight of the camera and the faces of the cows cannot be seen from every camera position. “That is why it is so important to test the cameras on real farms, so that we know the challenges the technique faces.” According to Mr Connolly, the start-up benefits from the fact that the founders have their roots in agriculture. “People ask me, why did you became CEO of just a startup? But it is not just a startup. The founders understand how farms work. I think this is a great benefit they have, compared to other startups in agriculture technology. It will determine the success of Cainthus. Other startups often have experience with technology, but not with farming or agriculture. That may be a pitfall.”

Investment by Cargill

Last year Cainthus received an undisclosed investment from Cargill and the 2 entered in a partnership. Cargill wanted to invest in digital technologies to improve livestock. “The development of technology is complicated and expensive. Therefore, it needs substantial investment to develop further.” But not only the money is important. Cainthus can take advantage of Cargill’s network with ‘the right partners, farms and markets’. Despite the partnership with the big agricultural company, it is important for Cainthus it stays independent. “We want to keep the flexibility and the room for our own ideas”. The investment of Cargill in Cainthus was very important, start-ups do not necessarily need corporates for capital or success, says Mr Connolly. “Venture capital or funding for example, can also work. Corporates may need start-ups more than the other way around in business but Agriculture faces unique challenges, for example route to market and in such a case having a corporate or strategic partner makes a lot of sense.”

Photo: Cainthus
Photo: Cainthus

When he was Innovation Officer of one of the biggest agribusinesses in the world, setting up the Pearse Lyons Accelerator, Mr Connolly experienced the real benefits of involvement with start-ups. “Start-ups take more risks and feel more pressure for innovation. New techniques or products rarely come from big corporations anymore. Typically the bigger the company, the less innovation occurs inside the company. Innovation from the start-ups, however, can act as the pipeline for new ideas.” When Connolly looks to the future, he sees a bright one. “I think that the camera technology from Cainthus will be widely used on farms within 3 to 5 years. Especially on larger farms, with herd sizes above 200 cows. By then, we would also be using the technology for other species like pigs and poultry. I expect that Cainthus will be a so called ‘unicorn’ in 3 to 5 years, the name given to a start-up company valued at over USD$ 1 billion.”

F&A Next

On 15-16 May 2019, the 4th edition of F&A Next will be held on the Campus of Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. The event was launched in 2016 to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. Start-ups, companies and investors get the opportunity to network, debate and get inspired. During the 2 days, presentations and panel discussions will be held and the most promising food and agri start-ups will present themselves. F&A Next is an initiative by Rabobank, Wageningen University & Research, Anterra Capital and StartLife.