Getting an innovative agricultural product or service to market — and having it sell — is neither an easy nor an inexpensive way to make your mark, so Tim Nelson has some advice if you think you have hit on the next big thing.
“Make sure it is of use and relevant to farmers,” says the founder and CEO of Farm Health Guardian. If it sounds like a no-brainer, think again. Remember, Nelson is a serial inventor who has worked in Australia, the U.K. and Canada and has founded many leading-edge organizations including the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), based in Guelph, Ont.
Nelson says anyone with a great innovation has to start by KNOWING it’s something the industry will want.
“You’re providing them with an answer to a question,” he says. “You also have to be sure it makes things more efficient, and makes the life of the farmer better.”
Preventing disease spread
Nelson’s latest invention — Farm Health Guardian — is a computer system and application that’s designed to identify animal disease outbreaks and prevent them from spreading from farm networks that supply livestock to companies or organizations. The company buys the equipment and subscribes to the service.
Nelson says that although the system can’t stop disease from coming onto farms, it can prevent disease spread by generating a map and a list of people who have been on the farm when the pathogen was “hot.” It also tracks where each person went after having been exposed and, starting with the index farm, it documents direct contacts, as well as secondary contacts like feed mills or truck plants.
“We’ve had three events that led to lockdowns which, in the past, would have taken four or five days to achieve — and took only 10 minutes,” Nelson says.
Maple Leaf Foods was integral in helping develop Farm Health Guardian from an earlier generation technology called Be Seen Be Safe. Nelson hit on that idea from his time as executive director at the Poultry Industry Council (PIC) where, during disease management simulations, he identified a big gap in terms of the time it takes to get a disease under control once they knew it was present.
The new version is completely rebuilt, much more robust, and “very fast” at tracking and tracing, Nelson says.
Farm Health Guardian is also scalable — it can cover a single network of farms, or it can cover an entire country.
“If we were hit with African swine fever and we had four or five big integrators on the system, we could provide a network map of where it’s gone in that 10-minute period,” he says.
The key to making it work is to get it installed in many locations. He’s currently focusing on large, commercial entities that are supplied by a “lot of farms.”
The technology’s benefits go beyond controlling disease outbreaks.
“It works in peacetime, too — if you’re looking to do audits of visitors, rationalize trucking routes, or determine the health profiles of barns,” he says.
Nelson also says that, if companies know they can stop a disease moving quickly through their farm networks, there are savings to be had in buying fewer pharmaceuticals.
Maple Leaf is already talking to other integrators to get them on board with Farm Health Guardian, and Nelson has a number of demonstrations with large companies and organizations lined up.
Most recently, Nelson partnered with Rob Hannam and his Synthesis Agri-Food Network, which will bring business and communications expertise to getting the system into the marketplace.
Know your customer
Nelson says the “show and tell” aspect of new inventions is a key strategy when trying to convince farmers to buy.
“Farmers have a business that is also their way of life,” he says. “Imagine someone coming into your business and saying, ‘you can have this great new thing, but you’ll need to change what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years.’”
He is also very aware of the interconnectedness of the operations on an individual farm.
“Farms are complicated and have systems within systems — there’s a risk that by changing one thing, you’ll adversely affect something somewhere else.”
His new system automates paper bio-security systems that track when people enter and exit farms.
“We’re not collecting any different information, but it’s a whole lot more efficient and we can use the data right away in case of a disease outbreak,” he says.
Nelson also points to a Quebec study, conducted by Racicot and Vaillancourt in 2011, which showed that biosecurity compliance on poultry farms was “pretty low.”
“The more we can automate and the less human interaction there is, the more accurate the information is in terms of who’s come and gone off the farm and where they went,” he says, adding that he’s not knocking people — it’s just human nature to become a bit complacent.
Do your homework and be persistent
He says his time at the head of both LRIC and PIC were eye-openers because, often, someone would come to him with what they thought was a fantastic idea, and when he told them to do some marketing research, he’d never hear from them again.
He says innovators have to do the research or have a really good understanding of the market and its pain points.
Choosing where to market is another step. With his deep connections in the business, he’s able to draw on the advice and help of trusted colleagues.
“My method is to talk to people I work with, present the advantages of the product and ask them to talk it up to their networks,” he says. By starting a bit of a buzz around the product, he then pursues the more traditional ways of marketing — including advertising, trade shows and the like.
Nelson has an anecdote from his youth in the U.K. in which a guy parked at the side of the road and leaned on the fence waiting for Nelson’s employer to stop the combine he was driving during harvest. The farmer didn’t stop. All day. So the fence-leaner gave up. The farmer figured it was a salesman and he wasn’t interested in buying.
“I never want to be the guy leaning on the fence,” Nelson says, adding that he thinks it’s important to look for and get to know industry mentors and people who farmers trust and listen to.
Nelson also says that, with the internet, market research is pretty easy. For example, after having read an article that someone wrote about biosecurity, he looked the person up on LinkedIn and arranged for a conversation about Farm Health Guardian.
In terms of building a team, he says it’s crucial to get people who know the industry, and it’s even better if they’re from a farm.
He says university ag students are great because they have the knowledge, the networks and the energy.
Nelson also cautions that the team needs someone who’s good with administration and keeping the books.
“It’s an expensive endeavour and you have to be tenacious — especially in agriculture,” he says, adding it takes a while to get established and to have people start looking for you.
He’s also a big fan of organizations like Bioenterprise, Communitech and Innovation Guelph, which are geared to helping innovators prepare to go to market, including how to approach venture capitalists (VC) and angel investors.
“You don’t have to go the VC route — you could find a company that is interested in investing in your product,” he says.
He warns that “it’s bloody hard work” and you have to be prepared to deal with setbacks. He cites that, with Be Seen Be Safe, he was surprised at how unwilling veterinarians were to listen to him because he didn’t have an animal health background. He did, however, know about tracking and tracing.
Where to from here
In terms of the future, Nelson says that a big question is how to best manage all the data that’s swirling around agriculture, and that, if companies want farmers’ data, the farmers should get a return on the investment they put into collecting and providing it.
“Having said that, there’s a lot of data out there that we’re not connecting together to make it useful,” he says, citing animal health data, weather data, soil data and so on.
He thinks research should be aimed at connecting the dots between what may seem to be disparate sets of data.
He cites his experience in 2015, when he monitored the outbreak of avian influenza (AI) in the U.S. and porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) in 2013. He mapped the movement of the outbreaks, and recognized that trucks — and the movement of the animals — were a big part of the problem.
“Many were saying AI was because of wild migrating birds — which was a lot of nonsense,” he says. It was people who were responsible for the spread.
He thinks that looking at the broader picture and at other industries for inspiration would also be a good idea. Animal health researchers could, for example, be looking at advances in human medicine and adapting new technologies to resolve problems in livestock agriculture.
He also thinks that companies could do well to collaborate with one another on basic, pre-competitive research in animal health, and points to PigGen as a good example of this — another organization for which he is executive director. It’s a non-profit that pulls together several swine genetics companies and co-ordinates research strategies with the pork industry.
“They’re really fierce competitors in the marketplace,” he says, “but they work together on basic research around pig health.”