Irish start-up Equilume wants to ‘illuminate’ global horse-breeding industry with light therapy

6 Sep 2013

A new light mask for horses (mares, specifically) that has been pioneered by Equilume, a spin-out from University College Dublin (UCD) in Ireland, is on a mission to disrupt the way thoroughbred breeders around the globe breed horses by using light therapy. UCD academic Dr Barbara Murphy is behind the venture. first wrote about Murphy, a lecturer in equine science at UCD, last year when she won Enterprise Ireland’s ‘One to Watch’ award for her light mask invention.

Now, Murphy has spun the company out of her research at UCD, with the help of Enterprise Ireland, and the expertise of her fellow academic Prof John Sheridan, an optoelectronics researcher in UCD’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Communications Engineering.

In-situ in Co Kildare: home to horses

Future Human

Equilume is now based in Co Kildare, a county that is known for being at the heart of Ireland’s thoroughbred industry.

Headed by Murphy, Equilume employs four people and plans to increase staff numbers to 10 by the end of 2016. The start-up’s ‘Light Mask’ is entirely manufactured in Ireland.

Murphy has some fairly ambitious targets for Equilume.

She is on a mission to steer the tech spin-out so as to take on the global thoroughbred breeding sector. How? Via her light mask invention, she wants to help thoroughbred breeders optimise the reproductive efficiency and performance in their horses, potentially saving such breeders up to €1,000 per mare during breeding season.

The Equilume ‘Light Mask’ features what Murphy describes as a “novel” automated mobile lighting device, which slots in under a horse’s head collar.

She said the mask has been scientifically proven to provide the optimum level of blue light to a single eye of a mare to successfully advance her breeding season.

The universal birthday for a thoroughbred foal (born in the northern hemisphere) is 1 January. This contrasts with the natural foaling season of the horse, which is from May to October.

The breeders, and the four seasons

Dr Barbara Murphy

Dr Barbara Murphy, academic in UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science, and founder, Equilume, at NovaUCD in 2011. The photo depicts a prototypeof the Equilume light mask invention. Murphy has worked with Enterprise Ireland, commercialisation experts at NovaUCD and fellow experts to developEquilume to what it is today. Image via Jason Clarke Photography

Murphy explained this “crucial” industry-wide date triggers a demand for thoroughbred breeders to advance the onset of their mares’ breeding season so as to produce early foals, to ensure mature yearlings for sales and “precocious” two-year-olds for racing.

Horses, it would seem, are naturally ‘long-day’ seasonal breeders and daylight is a primary regulator of reproduction in horses.

As days start to get longer in spring, the inhibitory action of the hormone melatonin on a mare’s reproduction activity is reduced and mares come into season.

Thoroughbred breeders have known about the importance of light on a mare’s reproduction cycle for decades, explained Murphy.

In order to fool a mare’s reproductive system into activating earlier than in nature, many breeders currently maintain their non-pregnant mares indoors, under artificial lighting for eight to 10 weeks prior to the official start of the breeding season in February. This is very costly for such breeds.

By using the Light Mask, Murphy said thoroughbred breeders can now still meet crucial industry timelines and at the same time eliminate the requirement to maintain their non-pregnant mares indoors under artificial lighting.

“Our research at UCD found that very low intensities of blue light are required to inhibit circulating concentrations of melatonin in the horse and that it is sufficient to deliver blue light to a single eye of a mare and still inhibit melatonin levels to daylight levels,” said Murphy.

She said another advantage of the Light Mask is that it also allows horses be horses, and live outdoors in their natural environment where they are “happier and healthier”.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic