Agricultural start-up aims to improve livestock conception rates

Liane Hart, co-founder and CEO of Verility, Inc., owns Fertile-Eyez, a device to assess the quality of sperm and ovulation in cattle. (Mitchell Kirk | Daily reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY – When cattle can’t reproduce, that means less meat in the food supply and less money in the pockets of producers.

The reverse is often discovered downstream, having already wreaked havoc. And while there are ways to anticipate the problem, they are usually expensive or require a skilled workforce.

But a Hancock County woman’s startup is looking to change all that with a mobile device that can quickly, accurately, and easily analyze the quality of animals’ sperm and ovulation.

Verility Inc. and its product, Fertile-Eyez, help cattle producers determine if an animal is ready to enter a breeding herd, said CEO and co-founder Liane Hart.

The company is starting with pigs and plans to prove its concept with other species as well.

The current prototype of the device uses a smartphone, but Verility intends to create its own mobile unit. When evaluating boars, a semen sample is placed in a small rectangular slide called a microfluidic device. This device is then slipped into Fertile-Eyez, which uses a camera to read the sample and display its sperm on the screen. It also evaluates cells using artificial intelligence and proprietary algorithms.

A pristine microfluidic device is slipped into the top of Fertile-Eyez.  When a microfluidic device containing pork semen is used, farmers can use the unit's camera and other technologies to assess the sample.  (Mitchell Kirk | Daily reporter)
A pristine microfluidic device is slipped into the top of Fertile-Eyez. When a microfluidic device containing pork semen is used, farmers can use the unit’s camera and other technologies to assess the sample. (Mitchell Kirk | Daily reporter)

Fertile-Eyez can quickly determine the concentration of sperm, how many cells are able to move and how many are abnormal, Hart said. If a certain threshold of abnormality is reached, a breeder can avoid using it because it is unlikely to be fertile.

For sows, the device examines saliva patterns, which show when ovulation is occurring. Hart said Verility was conducting a small study on this side of the technology, which would lead to a larger one.

The device allows breeders to avoid the need for skilled labor required to examine cells under a microscope.

“You don’t have to be a trained lab technician,” Hart said. “In fact, Fertile-Eyez, it’s like having a trained lab technician and a digital microscope in the palm of your hand. You don’t need to have a doctorate. or a scientist to use it.

On average, at any given time, the hog industry is experiencing a non-conception rate of around 15%, Hart said.

“And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but with the number of animals it actually equates to a lot of animals that don’t fit into the food supply,” she continued. “So if we can just move that trigger just a little bit – even one, two, three, five percent – that means a lot more money in the hands of the producer and more meat in our food supply.”

Often, producers don’t even check doses before insemination in sow farms due to lack of time, skilled labor or tools, Hart said.

“It gives them the ability, in seconds, to get a reading on a particular sample and say, ‘That’s good, let’s go ahead,’ and override that part of the equation,” he said. she said of Fertile-Eyez. “Whereas before you had a question mark.”

Hart said the device is only a fraction of the cost of similar products on the market, which can go up to $ 20,000. Another aspect that sets it apart from its competition, she said, is its ability to determine cell morphology – the size, shape and composition of a cell.

Hart worked at Elanco Animal Health for 17 years in a variety of fields, including sitting across from startups showcasing the company.

“And I didn’t appreciate what they were going through at the time,” she said. “Now I totally appreciate it. “

Hart, who also breeds thoroughbred racehorses, is motivated by his love of animal health, his investigative nature and his competitive spirit.

“I always watch the competition and make sure no one is playing in my arena,” she said.

The technology behind Fertile-Eyez was first developed by Hadi Shafiee, assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. He developed it to allow men to test semen samples at home and avoid a clinic environment.

One of the co-founders of Verility had a connection to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which in 2017 asked if the technology could have an application in animal health. The co-founder passed the question on to Hart and the other co-founders, to whom they responded with a resounding yes.

Verility was trained, Shafiee hopped on board, and they’ve been working on Fertile-Eyez ever since. This work included testing and a study with Purdue University, Hart’s alma mater. The company is made up of a team of four members and an advisory board.

“I think there was a lot of learning throughout 2018 and 2019 to understand how, as a startup, do we operate, who are we going to talk to, and then how to present it,” Hart said.

While the technology had proof of concept on the human side, much of the comments from potential investors included a desire for more data in the pig space, Hart said. The company has spent the past year collating this data before returning to the sidewalk this spring.

“Five years ago, I never thought I would see myself as part of a startup, as an entrepreneur, let alone the CEO of a startup,” Hart said. “And how it’s progressed so far, I’m very grateful. And it was a great experience for me. I’m glad I did.

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