Cotter Agritech: The timing is right for drug reduction in farming

5 Sep 2022

Nick and Jack Cotter, co-founders, Cotter Agritech. Image: Shane O’Neill

This Limerick start-up is validating its technology to help reduce the use of antiparasitic drugs in farming just as the EU is laying down the law.

Limerick’s Cotter brothers are already serial entrepreneurs as of their early 20s. And so their story has echoes of another Irish sibling success story – the Collison brothers – but in this case, it’s not the world of fintech but agritech that takes centre stage.

Raised on their family’s organic sheep farm in west Limerick, Nick and Jack Cotter have founded three businesses together since they were just kids. “Our first business, Cotter Bros Firewood, was founded in 2011, when I was 11 and Jack was 13,” Nick recalled. “This has grown into an industry-leading domestic firewood producer selling nationwide.”

The second business, Cotter Organic Lamb, was established in 2019 and has won a number of Irish Quality Food Awards. And with Cotter Agritech, founded the same year, the brothers are bringing technology into their field of operations.

‘If the animal is not suffering a loss of performance, then there is no need to treat them’

Cotter Agritech uses patented hardware and software to help farmers to precisely target animals with antiparasitic drugs instead of blanket treating an entire flock or herd. “This reduces antiparasitic drug use by up to 50pc, reducing costs, preventing drug resistance, and reducing negative biodiversity impacts,” explained Nick, who leads the company as CEO.

The drug targeting hinges on SmartWorm, an algorithm developed by Cotter Agritech to predict whether an animal will benefit from receiving antiparasitic treatment.

“What we factor in our algorithm is the animal’s weight gain. Because if the animal is not suffering a loss of performance, then there is no need to treat them,” Nick explained. This is communicated to farmers using a device to scan RFID tags after data on the animals is recorded, and a red or green light tells them whether or not to treat in real time.

SmartWorm also takes into account weather conditions such as rainfall and temperature, as well as data on pasture quality and availability. This helps determine a base level of animal performance and ensures the algorithm can be tailored to any group of animals on any farm.

“Our solution is based on the scientific principle that parasites are not distributed evenly,” Nick expanded. “They are distributed according to the Pareto principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule. 80pc of parasites are in about 20pc of the animals, so at any given time there is a high proportion of animals who don’t actually need treatment.”

‘We’re seeking to future-proof animal production’

As with humans, animals can develop drug resistance, and precise targeting of treatment can help tackle this growing issue.

“The prevalence of drug resistance is very high in sheep worldwide, but it is actually of the same magnitude in cattle, so we see a huge opportunity to augment the solution for dairy and beef farmers in the coming years, and goats too,” said Nick.

“Long term, what we’re seeking to do here is future-proof animal production,” he added.

And by identifying the animals needing the least treatment, farmers will be able to selectively breed those that are demonstrating resilience. “So, over time, the drug use reduction actually gets larger as the farmer improves the natural parasite resistance within their flock,” said Nick.

“The trend is towards more nature-friendly farming, reduction of chemical use and protection of our biodiversity, so the tide is rolling in our direction as we’re addressing these areas,” he added.

‘Parasite resistance is a sleeping giant just awakening’

Indeed the timing for Cotter Agritech couldn’t be better as 2022 has seen significant changes to EU regulation on antiparasitic veterinary medicinal products as it seeks to tackle drug resistance in livestock. “That is what I mean when I say that ‘the trend is our friend’. It is beyond us – we are just in the right place, at the right time, with the right solution,” said Nick.

The start-up is also buoyed by support from Enterprise Ireland and its Local Enterprise Office, and completed two accelerators in the past year – AgTechUCD and Ideate Ireland. “These accelerators have been akin to giving a man a torch in a dimly lit room – they have helped us see more clearly what we have always been looking at,” said Nick.

The CEO himself has also gained recognition, having been named Global Champion at this year’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.

But while the Cotters’ youth has earned them attention, it can also be a challenge. Nick said “being taken seriously as a teenage founder” has been a hurdle to overcome.

Now in their 20s, and continuing their education alongside their entrepreneurship, they are ensuring their business is backed by credentials. Last year, a validation study was conducted with University College Dublin’s Lyons Farm and Queen’s University Belfast and, across 18 commercial sheep farms, Cotter Agritech was found to reduce drug use by up to 50pc without any loss of animal performance or welfare.

“We’re currently onboarding our first users in Ireland and the UK and completing further validation work,” said Nick. “This research will be published later this year, which will accelerate and facilitate adoption. In a few months we’re also beginning first testing of the solution in Australia and New Zealand.”

Then, next year, the focus will be on funding, expansion and further R&D.

“Parasite resistance is a sleeping giant just awakening, and I believe that every grass-based livestock farmer would be better off if this invention is available to them, and we will need external funding to achieve this aim,” said Nick.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.