For many sheep farmers, a big challenge to their ability to optimise their production systems lies in not knowing which lambs are coming from which ewes, meaning they can’t accurately identify the most productive animals they should be breeding. It’s not a new problem, but it’s never been solved in a way that’s intuitive, cost-effective and practical for farmers, until now.
Enter Genesmith by NeXtgen Agri, an agritech company looking to unlock the potential of the sheep industry through integrated facial recognition and machine learning technology to identify and monitor the welfare and productivity of sheep.
Meet the founders of Genesmith Dr. Mark Ferguson and Ian Harris. They are one of the start-ups taking part in our three-month Sprout 2022 Accelerator in the Cohort IX intake.
“There is money to be made by breeding more selectively from our top performing ewes. We’ve tried a few different avenues to solve this problem, like sensors, but it kept coming back to the need to identify sheep from a distance. I’ve worked in the sheep industry since I was 12, so it’s a market I know and something I think will add real value to the industry,” said Mark.
While to most people, all sheep tend to look the same, they are, in fact, different. With his many years in the sheep industry, Mark was well aware of this fact, but his biggest aha moment came in 2018 when facial recognition in sheep worked.
“If I had to go back in time and change things, I wouldn’t have gone down the route of sensors. We wasted a bit of money and time on that venture. I think though, that sometimes you have to go down the wrong path to get some learning under your belt,” said Mark.
The inspiration for the business name, Genesmith, came from founder Mark during the long walk from Wellington CBD to Wellington Airport when he came across a shop called ‘fishsmith’. He immediately liked the reference to crafting something. Like many businesses, the name was the easy bit. The business has overcome many challenges, most notably the steep learning curve that comes from working with sheep and technology in tandem.
“You make a prototype, go to the farm to test it out, and it’s like a punch in the face to be honest. You take away all these learnings, rinse and repeat many times over. Technology like this is and needs to be fast evolving. At the start, I think we tried to work on solving the whole problem, rather than breaking it down into pieces like we needed to,” said Ian.
Their focus now is on working on prototypes and getting feedback as quickly as possible. It’s a mixture of technology and farming knowledge that has to come together to progress towards a final scalable product. This is where their unique team has proven to be a real strength of the business.
The team is made up of two distinct areas of expertise. Agricultural knowledge comes from Mark, co-founder and director of neXtgen Agri and sheep scientist. Meanwhile, the technology team, who brings a mixture of electronic engineering, software development and mechatronics engineering know-how, is made up of Ian Harris, Ali Alqassab, Jack Zarifeh and Atheeth Mohammed.