Terra Nutritech: A family business bringing farming into the 21st century

30 Nov 2020

From left: Tom and Padraig Hennessy with the Terra Nutritech team. Image: Jeff Harvey

Our Start-up of the Week is Terra Nutritech, an agritech company adding an internet of things layer to herd nutrition.

Padraig Hennessy calls it a “privilege” to build a business on the farm where he grew up. It was here in Moone, Co Kildare that he helped manage a suckler cow unit before expanding his horizons. First, to Waterford IT where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing, then further afield to Toronto and Sydney.

Like many an Irish emigrant, he eventually boomeranged, settling in Dublin with a role in fintech. But in 2008, Hennessy was drawn back to Moone and the farm, with a new venture in agritech co-founded with his brother, Tom.

As CEO of Terra Nutritech, Hennessy leads a team developing technology for precision liquid delivery of nutritional supplements for animals. “Our patent-pending and award-winning technology means animals receive a precise daily dose of any liquid supplement, leading to healthier stock and better returns, all with less labour,” Hennessy explained.

The Terra Nutritech system can deliver precise doses of nutrients direct to the animals’ water supply, or a solution can be sprayed onto their feed. The dosage is determined with exact animal numbers and requirements input to the system.

“New challenges seem to arise weekly, which always keeps the journey interesting,” said Hennessy. “Hurdles that have given us sleepless nights were issues while developing new hardware and software. I was told at the start of our technology development project that as a general rule it would take twice as long and cost three times as much as what we thought. We naively thought we would be different – we weren’t!”

‘Our team passionately believe that to make agriculture more sustainable and profitable, practices need to change’

CTO Stephen Begley said that the challenges of reaching dispersed customers in rural areas was a major factor in designing the system.

“We needed a way our algorithm can make decisions locally on farm irrespective of connectivity to our servers. Having this in mind we decided to utilise edge computing technology and bring those decision-making processes to the farm yard,” he said.

Using a micro-computer on-site to perform these tasks, data is sent back to the servers via an internet of things connection when available. “Most of our customers have reasonable phone signal on farm so retrieving data is quite reliable,” explained Begley.

“We use the MQTT protocol in our transmissions from our on-farm device to the servers. This reduces our data payload significantly and allows for speed of communication between our mobile app and our on-farm micro-computer.”

The whole system takes in data from three different types of sensor, which is analysed by the micro-computer. The app gives users remote access to this on-farm information and can even signal if there’s a problem. “Customers love the alarm function that analyses water flow and triggers an alarm if our algorithm detects a leak,” said Begley.

Terra Nutritech is currently working with many dairy and beef farmers in the Irish market, and has begun trialling the system for poultry, swine and equines. The ultimate goal, according to Hennessy, is to bring farming practices into the 21st century.

“Our team passionately believe that to make agriculture more sustainable and profitable, practices need to change. Our aim is to reduce labour, decrease waste and use better information for more targeted decisions on farm,” he said.

Over the past five years, Terra Nutritech has seen more than 40pc growth, and Hennessy sees no signs of slowing. “New farms are becoming clients of Terra Nutritech each week. Covid-19 has certainly slowed down plans for international expansion but we have noticed, over the last few weeks, countries are starting to re-engage, so our aim is to launch in a number of countries before the year end.”

Describing international interest in the company’s technology and minerals as “significant” Hennessy said they will also be launching new technology to expand the dispensing system for use in feeder wagons – a move expected to keep Terra Nutritech on this growth trajectory.

“Having boot strapped throughout the first portion of our journey has ensured that the company ethos is constantly about customer service and innovation while keeping lean principles in mind,” said Hennessy.

‘Six months ago I would have been very optimistic for start-ups and the opportunities in the market place. However, the world has changed’

Among Hennessy’s top advice for budding entrepreneurs is to make use of the supports available. “We have built up a thriving Irish business while utilising supports from the Local Enterprise Offices and Enterprise Ireland. This has enabled to us to continue expansion without the need of outside investment,” he said.

“Only six months ago I would have been very optimistic for start-ups and the opportunities in the market place. However, the world has changed. Access to angel investors and VC will be more challenging going forward. Building relationships with end customers will be more difficult. A very clear value proposition will be crucial to any start-up. As with any time of upheaval there will be challenges. However, it is in these times that opportunities will arise.”

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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.