The 2015 edition of the pan-European startup contest Idea Challenge sees an increase in variety and internationality. The series of events re…
Wolfgang Auer and Jörg Schlipfinger; Photo credit: Smartbow
Wolfgang Auer, an Austrian native, grew up watching his grandfather attend to his dairy farm, which consisted of about 20 cows. “A small farm,” he explains, but it was there where he learned about the hard work and determination it takes to run a business. He also witnessed first hand how important it was to be able to monitor each animal’s location and vitals – a task which can get overwhelmingly complex in herds of hundreds. This is where Smartbow comes in – created in 2008, it is an intelligent device in the shape of an ear tag that, when attached to dairy cows and calves, monitors the real-time location of the animal. It also offers heat detection - to determine when the cow’s best ovulation days are - and rumination monitoring, making sure the animal is eating frequently and properly.
A software engineer by trade, Wolfgang inherited his grandfather’s farm when he was still in school, giving him a unique blend of skills. On the one hand, he knew how to anticipate the needs and ailments of the animals he looked after, day in and day out – a skill, he says, not many people have mastered, especially young workers new to the producing sector. On the other hand, his tech background led him to work for a large company that developed self-feeding machines for farming animals, where he noticed most farmers had constant struggles in locating their animals at a given moment.
We've been faced with more difficult tasks but the potential [of the company] has not changed.
“This is a problem for farmers, in particular, dairy farmers, who often cannot keep track of every single animal on their property,” Wolfgang says. He explains that by the time a farmer observes signs that an animal is ill, such as laying down during the day or refusing food, it is usually too late to save or treat the animal. As a result, the more farmers know about the whereabouts, and condition of the animals at all times, the better they can keep them healthy, and, with that, their investment intact. But try keeping an eye on hundreds, or thousands of cows in vast areas – it is exactly the type of task computer processors are much better at.
Enter Smartbow - the device comes along with software that monitors patterns to detect if the cows are ill, or in heat, for example. Those are broken down into practical information, which could be in the form of an alert or accessed by the farmer at any time through a computer, smartphone or tablet. The technology launched seven years ago and since then Wolfgang and his team at MKW electronics GmbH, where he is CEO, have perfected the process with a number of engineers from universities in various countries.
“It’s a company with great potential. That’s the reason I joined them,” says Jörg Schlipfinger, CFO of the company since 2013. “We’ve been faced with more difficult tasks but the potential [of the company] has not changed.”
Smart heat detection; Photo credit: Smartbow
Over the years, the company has faced difficulties, ranging from federal regulations to varying weather conditions in different regions around the world. Overcoming those has made Smartbow into a system that could be used worldwide despite of the climate conditions. But challenges come in all shapes and sizes – it has been said that true innovators go against the grain, and similarly, Wolfgang and his team have faced skepticism from investors and farmers alike.
It helped build up our network [...] and it challenged our business concept in a positive manner.
Jörg Schlipfinger about the support from aws
“It was a big challenge. A lot of people said to me we can’t do that,” Wolfgang explained. “They always told me it’s too difficult. It’s not possible to do that. The technology is not ready.” But he believed in his product even after his former boss, who witnessed the initial development, discouraged him from further working on the device.
Determined that he was on to something big, Wolfgang left that company and began looking for people who believed in the potential of this revolutionary device. He was fortunate enough to receive 500,000 euros as an initial investment from a family member. In addition, MKW electronics received over 1 million euros from the aws in 2013, as they promised to employ local professionals. "It helped cover substantial investments to accelerate," Jörg explained. "It also helped build up our network, especially in the financial sector. And it challenged our business concept in a positive manner." Since then, the startup has secured more than 3.5 million euros via direct investments.
One reason why investments have been flocking is that Smartbow’s innovative technology not only makes the life of dairy farmers easier but it also translates into actual savings, an often appreciated perk in a sector often faced with fluctuating economic variables. For example, for every 100-cow herd, Smartbow’s real-time localization feature could save a farmer 5,475 euros per year on average. The heat detection application would lead to annual savings of about 7,500 euros and the rumination monitoring could save up to 9,000 euros a year.
Those savings are obviously appreciated, as the company has about 55 clients in nine countries across three continents. It is no wonder they grew from a duo to a team of 25, with expertise ranging from software and hardware engineering to agricultural science, mathematics, statistics, and marketing.
Photo credit: Smartbow
The company’s client base is diverse – some have herds of just 25, and their biggest client up to date will expand their operations to 1,000 cows next year. MKW electronics is rapidly growing with clients from various countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the United States and potential customers in Latin America, Russia and Turkey. Last May, Wolfgang visited a hopeful new client, with a 1,000-dairy-cow farm, located in Curitiba, the largest city in the south of Brazil. That same month, he visited Moscow to meet with a company that runs a dairy farm with a 4,500 herd in the Krasnodar region. Last month, he travelled all the way to Washington, where he met a producer who currently owns 5,500 dairy cows.
Expanding their business abroad requires MKW electronics to comply with government regulations in every market where they intend to introduce Smartbow – a process that can sometimes span months. For instance, it took the company four months to get the proper licensing to sell their product in the United States and Canada.
Even with a few bumps along the road, Wolfgang and Jörg say they are learning to adapt to the needs of clients worldwide. With the help of great minds from universities in six different countries and their specialized team in Austria, they are boldly looking to what could be their biggest market yet: China. They have researched regulations but have yet to officially venture in the market that could easily be a game-changer. Meanwhile, the team continues to focus on improving the everyday lives of farmers around the world one ear-tag at a time.
This story is brought to you in partnership with aws
© copyright inventures publishing GmbH 2011-2018