Is this our most well-funded tech start-up?
So much for venture capital drying up as chill economic winds blow. Agritech start-up Halter has just raised $85 million in a series-C capital raising round.
While Kiwi-founded tech companies like Rocket Lab and Lanzatech raised considerable capital for expansion through their recent Nasdaq listings, Halter’s injection of capital is probably the largest raise closed in a VC funding round in the last couple of years.
US venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners has led the Series-C funding round, the VC company that also backed Rocket Lab. The connection with the country’s successful satellite launcher runs deep - Halter founder Craig Piggott used to work at Rocket Lab and Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck was an early investor in the company.
Halter founder Craig Piggot. - Supplied
Halter was founded in 2016 with an ingenious concept aimed at our dairy industry. It developed a solar-powered collar that a cow could wear and which farmers could use to remote guide their herd between paddocks and to and from the milking shed.
It turns out that cows can be trained with little electronic nudges which mean farmers don’t have to be present for every herd movement. It’s an example of automation in the agriculture space with improved productivity as the goal. Sensors and software can also be used to monitor cow nutrition and health.
Piggot said the funding wouldn’t be used for “any big expansion plans”, which is what you’d expect when VC money is in the mix. Instead Halter will develop its local business, getting more farmers onboard with its per-cow subscription model, and take the product to countries that farm in a similar way to New Zealand.
What’s great about Halter is that it encompasses software development, hardware design, and artificial intelligence, and is targeted at our primary sector, which is under pressure to cut emissions and improve efficiency.
For more about Halter, here’s a piece I wrote about them the last time I caught up with them, in July 2021 amidst the gloom of the pandemic and in the wake of Halter’s $32 million series-B capital raising round.
Giving farmers back what they value most - time
There’s a strange phenomenon happening in the Waikato. Farmers leave their gates open while dairy cows wander to and from the milking shed unaccompanied.
Paddocks are grazed in neat square formations despite the absence of fences to keep the hungry beasts contained.
What is going on? The first clue is that each cow has a black collar around her neck. But the real answer lies on the screen of the farmer’s smartphone. An app showing a birds eye view of the farm plots the location of each individual cow and let’s the farmer create a virtual fence to contain the mob of cows’ movements.
Tech-savvy farmers are literally phoning it in these days, issuing commands to cows with the tap of a button. A clever start-up called Halter has found a way to remotely move cows around and graze an open area of grass, all by training them to follow a series of audio commands and vibrations emitted from the collar.
“Farmers generally aren’t surprised,” says Halter founder and chief executive Craig Piggott, the son of a Waikato dairy farming family himself.
“Every cow is already trained to a physical fence. It’s a visual cue. We just convert that visual cue to an audible cue. They can be trained.”
Halter emerged as a side project for Piggott while he was working as a mechanical engineer at Rocket Lab, which after SpaceX is still the only rocket company in the world regularly launching commercial rocket payloads into orbit.
“It's only once I left farming that I started to see how many inefficiencies there are in farming, so many opportunities to do better.”
Farmers can work up to 100 hours a week during the busy spring calving period. The grind of daily milking is exacerbated by a labour shortage. Piggott wanted to come up with a way to save farmers the time and hassle of shifting their mobs.
It started with virtual fencing - using GPS positioning technology to assign areas of pasture for cows to graze in. If they get close to the boundary, the audio cues tell the cows to step back. A quick “pulse” of vibration from the collar encourages them to get a move on.
By late 2016, Piggott realised he couldn’t treat Halter as a side hustle any more and resigned from Rocket Lab. He did so with the full blessing of Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, who joined the board of Halter and invested in the start-up.
Since then, Halter has been developing the technology on its pilot farm in the Waitako as well as with local farmers. The Halter system is typically aimed at dairy herds of 200 - 1,000 cows.
“I didn't want it to be just another gadget or thing that you would add to the farm,” says Piggott.
“It needed to involve a rethink of how you would run a farm.”
Sensor technology in the collar can detect when a cow is lame or in heat, making it a valuable tool for managing animal health. The software also allows a farmer to precisely measure how much dry matter per cow is needed and geo-fence an area of grass accordingly.
Piggott says that early adopters of Halter, who pay a subscription for the service rather than an upfront cost for the solar-powered collars, are saving money on labour and animal health costs and improving their pasture productivity.
“But the non-financial gains are as important,” he adds.
“They are loving farming again because it is less stressful. They have a better relationship with their wife. They can spend more time with their kids and get off the farm more.”
Halter’s aim now is to have farmers all over the country using the technology.
“Farmers are incredibly rational people and have a healthy skepticism towards new stuff
It has to be easy enough to use and make financial sense,” says Piggott.
“But once the collars are out there, the possibilities are just about endless.”
“It’s your typical scaling pains. How do you hire enough people to keep up with the pace of growth? We are venture-backed so we can move fast, but you still have to find the right people. The supply chain, at the moment, is challenging too due to Covid-19.”
“We have resources. The most recent funding round raised $32 million led by Blackbird Ventures. It means that every week we are adding new features to the technology. It’s evolving, getting better and getting smarter.”
“Getting onto more farms. We’ve been pretty selective about who we’ve rolled it out to in the past, farmers who will give us feedback and help develop the product. Expanding throughout New Zealand is the overarching goal.”
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