There are many agtech start-ups finding their feet in Ireland that you can get involved in if you fancy a taste of start-up culture. Better still, you might have the entrepreneurial flare to start your own.
Terry Canning is CEO and cofounder of Belfast-based CattleEye and he gives us the lowdown on life as a serial entrepreneur in the Agtech sector.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in Co Armagh quite close to the border,” he says. “I was the second son, so I was kind of directed down the academic path; I studied engineering for four years in Queens University (in Belfast, QUB). After that I worked for nine years in telecommunications companies.”
The move to academia took Terry away from the agricultural sphere and his career in telecommunications gave him the opportunity to travel quite a bit with stints in Silicon Valley, Canada and Beijing.
Moving into entrepreneurship
“I learned how to develop cloud-based applications and in 2004 I applied that knowledge to livestock and founded FarmWizard, which was the world’s first software as a service (SaaS) for monitoring livestock,” Terry explains.
He could see the constant paperwork farmers had to do between registering stock and updating milk records. There was a lot of repetition, so he decided to build the website to provide a handy solution whereby they only had to enter data once.
“I grew that business up and we were mostly in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and a bit in the US. We had about 500 farms on the system when I sold it to the Duke of Westminster in 2015,” he says.
Confident after the success of his first sojourn into entrepreneurship it wasn’t long before Terry founded another ag tech start-up, this time with another emerging technology, artificial intelligence (AI).
“With CattleEye, it’s almost the next sort of evolution of where technology’s going, which is machine vision, AI. It’s another case of basically taking knowhow and knowledge from other sector areas, and then bringing it into agriculture,” he says.
CattleEye is an autonomous monitoring system for cattle to help facility managers better monitor the health and performance of the animals.
Terry could well attribute his technical curiosity to his homeplace, his father was always on the lookout for a solution. “My dad was always very interested in technical solutions for this and that and was always asking me about them. At the time, I didn’t think I’d be going back to him with them,” he says.
Recruiting the right team
As a start-up, recruiting the right team has been an important part of the journey for Terry. In this – when looking for top talent – he found sticking to his roots gave him the biggest rewards. He explains that sometimes highlighting life experience on CVs can be just as important as academia at times
“When we’d be recruiting people, we would look for people that didn’t necessarily have a farming background but know how to be sympathetic to farmers, so if they’d grown up on a farm, it was lovely to see it on their CV,” Terry explains.
“Even one of the really good recruitment agencies, I remember they found somebody, I don’t think it was even on his CV that he used to be a farmer, but he was perfect for us. Just that experience for an ag-tech businesses is really important,” he says.
The ag-tech community
We have an ever-growing successful ag-tech scene on the island of Ireland which is developing a little start-up ecosystem. We ask Terry what it’s like to be part of that community.
“There’s no doubt about it, there’s always opportunity where there are inflection points, so ag and tech; there’s massive opportunities there, it’s not a busy space,” he explains.
“Ag is historically not a well-digitised sector, but it’s tricky, you’ve got to go in with your eyes wide open.
“You see a lot of companies coming in from Silicon Valley – they have a look around and think there’s an opportunity, but they don’t understand it, they fall foul out of it – you really need to go into it with your eyes open. There are tight margins, it’s a tight sector to do business in but if you can navigate it there’s massive opportunities.”
Web summit exposure
CattleEye recently represented Ireland at the KPMG Global Tech Innovator final which was held in Lisbon, Portugal at the Web Summit putting an Agtech on a world stage at a major tech event. Introducing CattleEye to the masses was a busy experience for the team.
“You certainly feel very different, that’s for sure – a lot of the start-ups there are vying for identification in fintech (financial technology – using technology to deliver financial services) or something like that but there is not too many that are doing what we’re doing in agriculture so you do feel very niche. You feel quite unique, and you always get the biggest interest,” Terry explains.
A lot of the interest was due to CattleEye’s focus on carbon emissions reductions through increasing efficiencies in a dairy herd and the cows are better maintained.
“There’s less carbon emissions per litre of milk, so there’s a triple win there. That very much resonated with a lot of people that came up to our stand and wanted to know how we did that,” he says.
“Certainly there’s a lot of money and a lot of investment floating around for anything that can reduce emissions,” he adds.