Fascinating field: This founder is finding ways for farmers to be sustainable

7 Jun 2023

Image: Marion Cantillon

Marion Cantillon discusses the demands of doing a PhD while running a start-up, and why agriculture is no longer a male-dominated field.

Marion Cantillon wants to clear up some misconceptions about her area of expertise, agriculture. As well as running her own business (more on that later) Cantillon is currently pursuing a PhD with Ireland’s state-funded agricultural body Teagasc.

The first line of her research profile on Teagasc’s website says her main interest is agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

It’s certainly a topical issue. Ireland’s agricultural sector is frequently shown to be a major contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, Cantillon thinks that, if given a chance, agriculture can come up with tangible solutions to help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

“My PhD research delves into the fascinating field of mitigating emissions for livestock farmers,” she says, explaining that her work revolves around the development of a “decision support tool that offers tailored mitigation plans to farmers and advisors”.

These plans are specifically designed for their unique farms, says Cantillon. “Currently, farmers receive generic recommendations to adopt various mitigation measures, but these approaches fail to capture the diverse variations seen between farms. This is where our tool comes in.”

“By allowing farmers and advisors to input basic farm measurements, our tool generates customised mitigation strategies that not only effectively reduce emissions but also ensure cost-effectiveness for the farmers. This empowers farmers to swiftly identify the most suitable mitigation measures for their specific farm type and structure, enabling them to achieve emission targets while maintaining productivity.”

Cantillon is in the early stages of mastering the coding and programming of the tool at her base in University College Cork (UCC). She is determined that, with the help of her supervisors at UCC and Teagasc, she will be able to “revolutionise the way farmers approach emissions reduction and pave the way for a more sustainable agricultural future”.

Breaking ground in business

As well as her research work, Cantillon is breaking ground in agritech business with her start-up, PitSeal. The company makes a spray-on material that is designed to replicate traditional plastic sheeting for silage pit covering. The material forms a durable, protective layer on top of the grass in the pit to keep it preserved. Like Cantillon’s academic research, it is focused on environmental friendliness and ease for farmers. PitSeal incorporates a combination of anti-methanogenic feed additives, which have been scientifically proven to reduce methane levels in cattle after consumption.

Cantillon hopes her work in both academia and entrepreneurship can find a way to alleviate some of the pressure on ordinary farmers to be sustainable.

“The agriculture industry faces several critical challenges, including climate change, environmental sustainability, resource optimisation and evolving food production demands. Farmers are increasingly pressured to minimise their environmental impact while maintaining productivity and adopting sustainable practices – this is a massive undertaking,” she says.

Addressing these challenges requires “innovative solutions and different approaches” that support farmers.

How personal experience informed her research goals

Cantillon’s empathetic approach to the challenges faced by farmers is perhaps informed by what she saw growing up in close proximity to family farms. As she recalls, “it was a personal experience that truly ignited my passion for agriculture. While helping out on my uncle’s farm doing silage during the busy summer season, I became acutely aware of the challenges faced by farmers, particularly in silage pit covering methods.”

This sparked her interest in developing innovative technology that would improve efficiency for farmers while contributing to sustainability efforts in agriculture.

“The opportunity to make a meaningful impact in this area was a driving force behind PitSeal and me continuing to stay in academia focusing on emissions and agriculture,” she says of her career choice.

It has not been plain sailing all the time, however. For one thing, Cantillon has to navigate the challenges of running a business alongside her demanding PhD work – both of which, she says, pull her in different directions.

“As a researcher, my primary goal is to contribute to scientific knowledge and bring something new to the existing body of work. On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, I’m focused on navigating the business landscape, securing funding, building prototypes and bringing our technology to the market.”

“Finding the right balance between these roles requires careful time management, setting clear priorities and having a supportive team. I am grateful to have supervisors who understand me and were aware of my start-up venture for the get-go. This allowed me to have a seamless integration of my research and entrepreneurial pursuits,” she says.

Not a male-dominated field

Something else that Cantillon wants to highlight is the role of women in agriculture. There is a misconception, she says, that is linked to the sector as a whole that it is “predominantly male-dominated”.

“While it is true that historically, the sector has been male-centric, there has been a significant shift in recent years. Women are increasingly taking up roles and making valuable contributions across various aspects of agriculture, including research, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

As a businesswoman and researcher in the agricultural space, Cantillon says she is “proud to be part of this positive change”.

“It is important to challenge the notion that agriculture is solely a male-dominated domain and encourage greater diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the industry.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.