It has been a busy few weeks since Virtual Vet won the Technology section National Dairy Innovation Gold Award at the National Dairy Show, writes Jason Webb.
Co-founder and managing director, Sinead Queally has been following up with many industry leaders as the Waterford based start-up rolls out their unique service.
The concept seems like a welcome relief to hard working farmers.
Not too many companies will provide a service that takes an unwanted chore off farmers, hands. while not charge anything to do it for them.
But it could get even better, as the company hopes to be in a position to pay for the privilege to do this job for farmers in the future.
That job is the keeping of on-farm animal remedy records for Department of Agriculture and quality assurance inspections.
Virtual Vet offers to keep all on-farm records up to date for free, simply by sending them the information through a smartphone app, by text, by images, or even by voicemail.
The biggest question they get asked from farmers is “Why is it free?”
The short answer is that by pooling all the data that all farmers keep on their farms anyway, and must provide for inspection, they create a product that industry want to buy.
Data is key
This is an age where data is key, and industry and policy makers need it. So instead of the farmer paying for it, it is the industry that pays.
I spoke to the driving force, Sinead, this week, prior to her having another meeting with a potential customer in the meat industry.
Sinead lives on a dairy and beef farm in Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, with husband, Patrick, and daughter, Jo.
I asked her what was the lightbulb moment.
“There were several, but late nights filling out animal remedy books was the start.”
At the time, Sinead was working in WIT on technology projects, and she had done a lot of work on smartphone applications that were solving problems.
“I thought there must be a way to use smartphones to help with this problem, and I know there was nothing new in that.”
“So a lot of thought went into how it was going to do it.”
“It was over three years of research, looking at EU policy, data policy and farmer behaviour.”
“We found that the farmer was the centre of everything.”
“We attended a workshop in Exeter, the purpose was to find who will pay for data. After that, we knew we had customers.”
“There is a big data debate, who owns it? If you look at Facebook, they collect data and sell it to advertisers.”
“It can apply to animal health. Farmers have to keep records, and share it anyway.”
The concept was in place but one doubt seemed to be repeated to them, time after time. Would farmers give their data?
“We did think it could be an issue but we are finding that farmers feel that they are having to do it anyway, so this is no different. They have to hand it over anyway”
“We are finding they want to contribute information. They don’t want a ban or policy to come in without information being available.”
“We offer the service for free, but we plan that hopefully as we grow in scale we would be in a position to pay the farmer for the data.”
The information for a farmer using the service is available on their own portal within Virtual Vet.
“A farmer can click a certain medicine and show where it was used, or a certain cow, and show medicines it received.”
“The information is reader friendly and audit friendly.”
“If a farmer is informed of an audit or inspection, they contact us, and we prepare a report for email or post, depending on farmer.”
“There have already been several passed audits in several counties using our animal remedy reports.”
One of the interesting things is how farmers are engaging with technology.
VirtualVet are open to receiving information in whatever way a farmer is happy to supply.
“We take information whatever way a farmer can send it. We take photos from diary pages, voice messages, whatever.”
The firm has a growing number of farmers signing up for the service, mainly through word-of-mouth.
“Farmers seem to just Google us and sign up.”
The company is currently operating in UK as well as Ireland. The plan is to expand to other countries.
They are already in negotiations to expand to Australia, and roll-out with a farm management firm there.
This kind of an agreement allows the farm management software company focus on their product and service, while they hand off the remedy aspect of their software to Virtual Vet.
This allows for these technology companies to monetise an aspect of their business that was never monetised before.
Sinead commented “It is something that we might see rolled out in future too, as the scope to do it is there.”
“A farmer can use the software dashboard and tie in with us.”
The second co-founder is Profesor Toby Mottram, the founder of eCow, and a prominent figure in UK agricultural engineering in his own right.
The team of three operating out of Waterford currently are Caitriona Lynch Walsh, Narjis Hasan, and Shane Carney.
The business that started in a Co Waterford farmhouse kitchen could soon rule the animal remedy data world.