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Talking AgTech Trends with Tamara Leigh, Co-Founder of EIO Diagnostics

EIO Diagnostics uses multispectral imaging for early detection of udder diseases.

In the growing Agtech field, more and more companies are applying both software machine learning and the latest sensors to create a new generation of platforms that help to increase productivity and reduce waste. One of those companies is EIO Diagnostics from Canada that has a solution for early warning of udder diseases in dairy cows. Frank Yu of SOSV’s Food-X Accelerator talked with one of the founders, Tamara Leigh, about her perspective on the industry, startup life, and future trends to watch out for.

Frank: Tell me about your background and your role within EIO.

Tamara: I am co-founder and chief marketing officer for EIO Diagnostics. I come to this after 15 years of specializing in communications and marketing in the agriculture sphere. I’ve worked with everybody from producers, to agriculture and food companies, to government agencies, funding agencies, and then governments themselves at both levels, provincial and federal. So, I’ve been in agriculture for a while — and when Damir, our CEO, got going with this idea, he brought it to me and said, “We need somebody who understands the agriculture space, because that’s our target market.”

Frank: And for those who are not familiar with EIO, can you describe what EIO does?

Tamara: EIO Diagnostics developed a solution for the early detection of mastitis. So, those are udder infections in dairy animals: cows, goats, sheep, anything that you can milk. We’re using multispectral imaging and machine learning to be able to do a completely non-invasive and more affordable diagnosis of these infections.

Frank: What do you see happening in the agriculture industry right now? What are the things that you personally find exciting, or trends that you see in agriculture or dairy?

Tamara: There’s a lot going on. Sustainability trend is a huge trend. People need to be reducing the footprint of the agricultural productions that we have and producing more food on less land. We’ve seen that over and over again with increasing land prices and things like nutrient overload or nutrient efficient in soil. Animal welfare is also a major component of that. On a technological side, what we’re seeing is the adaptations that are coming to increase sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change, and to improve things like animal welfare. That’s where our tool comes in. I mean, we’re moving. There’s been this whole realm of precision agriculture technology in the crops and horticulture sphere. So, greenhouses, in the orchards, and out in the corn and the field crops. That’s great, and really advanced technology comes into play there, it’s been a relative newcomer to the livestock space. I think it’s because the animals are messy and they move.

And so, we’re bringing that sort of precision agriculture lens to livestock, and there’s a real movement there, especially in the dairy industry where margins are slim. Being able to monitor your animals is really important. We can move with that trend to help improve the well-being of animals and the productivity of animals, because really, that’s where all of that sort of comes together on that sustainability piece. If we do have livestock agriculture as part of a sustainable agriculture sphere. then we need to maximize the potential, the wellness, and the productivity of those animals.

Frank: I have a question about cross border export of products to other places such as Canada, Asia, Africa, or even the U.S. Are there growing markets for Canadian agriculture companies?

Tamara: In terms of food and agricultural products, or in terms of agriculture tech?

Frank: I think in terms of food and agricultural products, and eventually tech.

Tamara: Absolutely. Certainly, for Canadian agriculture, we’re an exporting nation. So, we produce way more than we consume, and we export to the U.S as a major export market, along with India, Asia, and China. You know, we’ve been exporting agricultural products to Europe and that’s what we do. As Canadians we’re very proud of exporting all of the things that we make. So, that’s great. It’s interesting, too, on the innovation side where we’re seeing agriculture tech being exported now as well. EIO was looking at markets in the U.S. and Mexico, and we’re getting interest from Australia from all kinds of other places. We’re going to be in Namibia and Kenya at the end of April, beginning of May. So, you know, a very deliberate focus because these are global issues. Another west coast company is Senios [SP] switch which does precision agriculture in orchards and they’re expanding out into California. So, we do see the innovations happening here and then moving out into other places.

Frank: The other question I have is a trend toward the ethical treatment of animals on farms. I mean, a happy animal is a more productive animal, but do you see that as something that’s gonna be growing in terms of importance for food producers to keep in mind, as well as something that consumers are more interested in?

Tamara: Undoubtedly. Animal welfare is a huge issue. I mean, part of it is that there’s been activist organizations like PETA and the folks who have been beating those drums and running shock campaigns that have woken consumers up. The industry though has always been…certainly in Canada, very cognizant and working towards continual improvements. So, we have codes of practice that are continually being updated in Canada for our livestock treatment and we see that as well as in other areas. So, yeah, consumer trend, yes. The awareness of animal welfare is a huge deal and living happy lives. I have a friend who says, “One bad day.” That’s his motto for his animals. He does that to cattle and chickens. So, just one bad day. But especially where you’re looking at things like laying hens where they have a longer productive career or dairy cows, the well-being of those animals is absolutely essential for consumer trust. You see people, you see cameras in the barns, you see farmers out trying to tell their story and looking for ways to make improvements in how their flocks and how their herds are being treated. And that has all kinds of benefits as you move up the line.

Frank: I know your background was working with big companies or government institutions in the past. But now that you’re an entrepreneur and a co-founder, how do you feel? Are there many women in this startup space of agriculture in Canada? What is your experience, and what things have you learned?

Tamara: Well, first, moving into the entrepreneur space and coming in as a co-founder to this really agile, quick moving, exciting space… It keeps you on the edge of your seat. Every conversation can make you go somewhere. And, yeah, it’s been quite exhilarating moving from the government space or even the news space as a freelancer into the entrepreneurial space. It has been quite exciting and a really steep learning curve. It’s a whole other culture. And then as women coming into the space, it’s interesting. I don’t necessarily feel alone. I’m meeting a lot of women in this space and I don’t know if that’s our experience with Food-X which is really done well in terms of recruiting companies with female founders. So, you know, at Food-X I’ve met other female founders, and when I do meet other people out in the world, they’re very supportive and very interested — but there is a sense that women need to stick together a little bit.

Frank: So, now that you’re almost a veteran… I think you’ve been doing this for what? Has it been a year yet?

Tamara: It’s been a long six months.

Frank: Okay. That actually makes you like a veteran in the startup space.

Tamara: We’ve made it that far, we’re doing okay.

Frank: Yeah. So, any words of advice for other female founders who were just starting out, or for people who were working in big companies who wanna make that leap to startup life?

Tamara: I think it’s really important to commit, and with that commitment comes the hustle. I think women in our society still have a lot more on the go with looking out for kids or doing those things. We haven’t found full parity yet. So, just understanding that when you go in there’s gonna be a huge learning curve and things are gonna move really fast. And being able to juggle those things and be agile and move into those spaces is really important. So, you know, finding ways to support talents in your life is a really major piece of it and, you know, asking for help when you need it. And then just get in there. I think there’s a lot to be said for hustle and getting out…putting yourself out there, and making no apologies for who you are or what you’re doing.

Frank: Thank you. And the last question is: Your company is on the cusp of all these hot things from machine learning to sensors. What kind of emerging tech or new things do you see that EIO may be looking into? I mean, you may not be implementing it now, but kind of interesting things that you may implement in the future.

Tamara: We saw a lot of opportunities for our foundational tech to be used in different ways in the same space. So we’re starting with looking at mastitis which is the udder infections, but lameness is the number two health issue that they have in dairy. We have different ways that we can apply what we’re doing right now and then we can look at other livestock as well. There’s a huge amount of interest. We get a lot of questions from investors and other people saying, “Have you thought about moving to this space or that space?” And right now, we’re just staying as focused as we can on others, there are a lot of them. You know, we’re looking at half a billion animals around the world. That’s the first stop. So, from there to what else when you look at in the cow with this technology, and then from cows to, you know, what other animals can we help or might benefit, and what problems in the agriculture sector might benefit from this way of looking at livestock.

Frank: This one’s sort of like my own personal curious question. But what do you guys do with all this footage? I mean, do you have like hours and hours of cow udder footage that you archive somewhere in a server?

Tamara: Yeah. Well, it’s part of our YouTube cow farm. We do keep everything. It’s part of the machine. It’s not that we have hours and hours of footage per se, but that we are keeping the images as data because that’s our raw data. And that leads into that machine learning model, right? So, it all informs and then it’s cataloged right now. We do have a largest collection of udder images in the world right now. We’re looking at other ways of using that information as well.

Frank: So it’s for educational purposes only.

Tamara: Purely, purely.

Tamara: I think it’s a really interesting and exciting space. I had somebody ask me a while ago, “Well, I heard that agriculture is like, 30 years behind in technology.” And I don’t think that’s the case at all. You know, they say that 20% of producers produce 80% of the productivity and that’s not an uncommon ratio in any industry to be honest. But, you know, farmers are looking at ways to adapt to climate change, they’re looking at ways to increase sustainability and reduce their footprint, they’re looking at ways to be economical and to deliver high quality products. And the technology that we have right now that’s being used in human medical spaces or being used in other spaces is absolutely applicable in this space. So, I don’t think there’s any more worthy or interesting space and relevant space globally than feeding people.

Frank: Great. Wow. So, that was pretty awesome. Thank you for your time.

Tamara: Thanks Frank, I appreciated it.

This interview has been lightly edited.

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Over six years, SOSV accelerated 11 cohorts of promising founders and invested in 100 startups via the Food-X accelerator.