Updated: May 4
About EIO Diagnostics
EIO Diagnostics builds computer vision-based tools to help farmers improve livestock health and productivity. Our first product is a tool to detect one of the biggest issues in dairy farming - mastitis.
EIO Diagnostics was started when a dairy farmer decided to find a better tool to monitor udder health to reduce mastitis infections in his herd. Drawing on his skills from a career in the technology industry, he built the first prototype using a thermal sensor to detect changes in the udder.
By helping solve a problem for one farmer, we have found a way to help many. Our team is dedicated to providing practical tools for farmers at all scales of production to improve the health of their animals. The UdderHealth™ Mastitis system installs seamlessly into rotary dairy parlors and will expand into other parlor styles soon.
About Tamara Leigh
Tamara Leigh is CEO of EIO Diagnostics. She is a strategist and community-builder with a focus on moving ideas into action. Before moving into technology and entrepreneurship, Tamara worked in the agriculture sector from barn to boardroom. She is an award-winning agriculture journalist, established and ran a successful agriculture communications practice, and has worked with farms, industry associations, and senior levels of government on agricultural issues.
EIO Diagnostics brings her lifelong passions for working with farmers, innovation and livestock together.
Mark: Technology at some level has permeated into virtually every industry under the sun, but dairy cow tech isn't one that immediately comes to mind. How does EIO Diagnostics provide tech for dairy cows?
Tamara: EIO Diagnostics builds computer vision-based tools to help farmers improve livestock health and productivity. Our first product, EIO Diagnostics UdderHeath™, is a tool to detect one of the biggest issues in dairy farming - mastitis. Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary glands – it’s something that happens to all mammals, including humans, and causes pain, swelling and affects milk quality. Cows are super-athletes of lactation. They produce 60 to 100 pounds of milk a day, but they don’t have a voice to tell us when they need help. Our UdderHealth™ system combines things that many people are familiar with in human medical imaging like thermography with artificial intelligence, which allows us to analyze the data our sensors collect for signs of inflammation.
There are challenges to bringing this technology out of the labs and into the barns. A lot of rural issues don’t have reliable internet so we use edge-computing to make sure that our system can operate in real-time. Our other big challenge was building a system that could withstand the harsh environment of a commercial dairy and fit in seamlessly with the workflow of the people in the barns. That took time and a lot of trial and error.
Mark: AgTech comes in many flavors. On a personal level, why was it important for you to become involved with the well-being of dairy cows?
Tamara: I believe every animal in production for human consumption deserves our respect and the best care that we can offer. The way we produce food is changed by all kinds of environmental, social and economic drivers, but the animals still have the same basic needs for comfort and care while farmers are working in increasingly complex environments with fewer people available to do the work. Bringing this product to market is one small thing we can do to improve the health and wellbeing of dairy cows and take some of the pressure off dairy farmers and farm workers.
Mark: With your successful background in agricultural journalism and communications, you have a unique perspective of AgTech, from covering it to now being covered. How has your dissemination of the industry helped you with being an innovator?
Tamara: I’ve been communicating about science and innovation in agriculture and other industries for a long time. There are three things that working as a writer has helped me with the most: It set me up with an amazing network of researchers, innovators, farmers and industry players. It really honed my ability to ask good questions and make sense of new information. Probably most importantly from both a tech and leadership perspective, it taught me that I don’t have to be an expert to do something, I just need to be able to find the right people to help tell the story or, in the case of EIO, to build the product.
Mark: This is a multiparter. You are using (testing?) this mastitis detection system in dairy farms in Canada and the US and I'm sure you're hoping this goes global, eventually. As an innovator, do you concern yourself with different countries' patent and trademarking rules and regs, or do you just keep your head down, and make the best product you can, and the rest will figure itself all out? For instance, how different (or similar) is it just working within the US vs. Canada? And are there cultural modifications you have to consider for either side of the border?
Tamara: We started working on this project in Canada because the founders were all Canadian, but it quickly became apparent that the best market to introduce it in was going to be the US. It’s a matter of scale first – there are 10 times more dairy cows in the US, they are closer together geographically and the use of rotary or carousel parlors is much more common.
When we look at different markets, we are assessing market size, regulatory environment, and intellectual property considerations. We also look at how those things play out in the structure of the dairy industry, their challenges with udder health, and those things shift the value proposition of our technology. For example, in the US labor savings and automation is a huge part of our value, but I was speaking with someone in India who wants to try our system. They have significant issues with mastitis detection and milk quality, but they have an abundance of cheap labor. That changes the way they would use our system and the way we present it.
As a founder and CEO, it’s my job to be concerned about intellectual property protections and make sure that we are doing the best we can to protect our assets, including patents and trade secrets. We try to strike a balance in the risks we take, but it is always a consideration.
"...56% of farms in the US have at least one female operator and that women are the primary operators in 36% of farms. I think this is a space where ag leads tech."
Mark: In a historically male-centric sector like farming, how has the journey been for you and what has been the biggest obstacle you've had to vanquish, aside from, oh, say, a worldwide pandemic?
Tamara: It’s funny that you’d think farming was more traditionally male dominated than tech. The 2017 US Census of Agriculture found that 56% of farms in the US have at least one female operator and that women are the primary operators in 36% of farms. I think this is a space where ag leads tech. Tech and start-up culture is shifting, but I think there are more systemic challenges and gender bias to overcome than in agriculture. All of that said, the biggest obstacle I had to vanquish was my own self-doubt. I made some early mistakes deferring to people who presented themselves as experts and didn’t deliver. Learning to trust my vision, instincts and abilities was important. It’s not what people say, it’s what they do that matters most.
Mark: How has it been introducing this innovation to traditional dairy farmers and what kinds of responses have you gotten from those who have seen it in action? I'm sure every day that you can collect and analyze data makes it an easier proposition?
Tamara: Farmers are natural innovators. They tweak systems, repair and customize equipment and run trials all the time. The first prototype of our technology was literally born in a barn by my co-founder who is a farmer on Vancouver Island. Farmers use whatever tools or skills are available to them to get things done, we’re just taking a new generation of tools to them and helping solve problems in new ways. Pitching the UdderHealth™ system has been received well so far. Agriculture is a “show me” culture. They want to see proof that it works and talk about price. Dairy is a very price-sensitive industry.
Mark: Speaking of collecting data over time, how does machine learning play a part in the process of detecting mastitis?
Tamara: EIO uses machine learning in our data collection, preparation, and analysis to detect cows with a high probability of mastitis. The hardware collects the data, but it’s the AI that does the heavy lifting and contributes value with the signal. One of the big challenges that we had to overcome was the need for a large enough dataset that we could train our models. It’s not like there was a pre-existing data set of mastitis udders that we could download to inform our work, or even a way to simulate that in a virtual environment. The strength of us using machine learning in this context is that we can continuously improve our accuracy as we expand and deepen our datasets. It’s a real value-add for farmers to continue working with us over time.
Mark: Beyond the dairy farm sector that you are in, where's an area you see as absolutely critical that must be addressed in the world of agriculture?
Tamara: Water use and nutrient cycling. We need to get much better at managing water in all levels of operation in crops and livestock production. We also need to manage our nutrient cycling better. Livestock are natural and efficient nutrient cyclers – they can be a real advantage to an ecosystem when managed properly. Similarly, plants have their own natural cycles. Agricultural production models are shaped by human settlement patterns, and we’ve interrupted the natural systems in order to feed huge numbers of people in urban centers. We extract nutrients from the soil in the products we grow and then we ship them to other places to feed humans or livestock. That doesn’t come back through manure or composting anymore, so we end up reliant on fertilizers and other farm inputs from somewhere else to keep the soil productive and cycle going. We need systems-based innovation, not just novel technologies address these things.
Mark: Thank you very much for sharing your insights, Tamara!