Fredericton entrepreneur Bethany Deshpande is bringing Big Data to the farm with the launch of SomaDetect, a new agro-tech startup. SomaDetect helps dairy farmers produce the best possible milk and keep tabs on their herd’s health via the use of an innovative laser-based technology.
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke to Bethany to learn more.
ONB: Where did the idea for SomaDetect originate?
Deshpande: My father is an inventor. Our solution comes from a base technology he has been working on for decades; it provides diagnostic data for fluids. Typically he would use it with human or animal blood samples for projects aimed at fighting Malaria and antibacterial-resistant tuberculosis, diseases with huge implications for humans, particularly in low resource areas.
He used store-bought milk to calibrate his machine since it has similar optical properties to blood and didn’t want to waste samples on calibration. He looked so closely during the calibration process that he was able to see real differences depending on the type of milk used. Variations came from fat content, so he could see a real difference between say coffee creamer vs. two percent. He asked around the dairy industry to see if this could be useful and received a resounding yes. Farmers gave him other variables [e.g. somatic cell count] to look into, and the technology grew from there.
He then filed a patent in 2014 that went through this past summer. As an inventor my father wasn’t as interested in the commercialization side, so he asked if I would like to take that on. Seeing the supportive community in Fredericton, and the opportunities for entrepreneurs here, I couldn’t resist.
ONB: What brought you to New Brunswick from Quebec?
Deshpande: I had finished my grad studies at Laval University and had begun looking for work outside the city, wanting a change. My husband and Co-Founder Nicholas Clermont and I had been involved with the Shad Valley program at Laval for several years. Barry Bisson, then Shad Valley President, suggested we look specifically at Fredericton, New Brunswick. Barry was a former professor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), and former chair of their TME program. He knew good things were happening here and connected us with the University’s Pond Deshpande Centre (no relation). Nicholas got a position there, and I found a great job with the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network.
ONB: Tell us about your pilot project.
Deshpande: The pilot will involve a small group of NB dairy farmers working with a prototype of the SomaDetect product. The idea is to have farmers co-create with us, offering insight into what they want to do with the tech and what they want reports to look like. This is a human-centered design approach, something Nic and I are passionate about, because we want to maximize the value of the technology for farmers. With SomaDetect’s new technology we are going from monthly reports for individual cows to daily reports and/or reports from every milking.
There’s a huge amount of data generated, and we’ll need industry’s help to sift through what is useful, what translates to management changes on the farm, what helps farmers save money, and more. There’s been great support from both individual farms and Milk 2020, the province’s dairy innovation organization. Having that level of support from industry and the entrepreneurial ecosystem makes a big difference for a startup.
ONB: Tell us more about your experience with that entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Deshpande: We’ve benefitted tremendously from the Pond Deshpande Centre’s B4Change Social Venture Accelerator. Joanna Nickerson and everyone at the PDC have been incredible supporters. It was via the PDC that we were introduced to Chris Mathis of Springboard Atlantic, and Nancy Mathis of the Wallace-McCain Institute. They have both been supporting our project and have helped us hit the ground running.
[New Brunswick’s Chief Entrepreneur-in-Residence] David Alston has been a tremendous help as well. It’s incredible to be able to contact experienced entrepreneurs and get another perspective on challenges that arise. David even accompanied us to farms in the Sussex area, getting to know how dairy farms operate, asking questions to farmers, and helping us fine-tune our validation process.
We’ve also enjoyed working with the team at BioNB, who understand what we’re trying to accomplish with this technology and some of the unique challenges of biotech startups. They have offered tons of advice and have also connected us with great people both locally and nationally.
Planet Hatch is another great resource for entrepreneurs. It was through them that I met ONB’s Rivers Corbett. He was one of the first people I spoke to about this project. He told me was that I needed to explain it better, and clean up my scientific jargon. He was right! Rivers has been a great cheerleader for us ever since. We look forward to working more with the ONB team in the months ahead as we plan for growth. Becoming part of the New Brunswick entrepreneurial community was so important for us. It has been easy to get connected with industry leaders, and the more people I speak to, the more excited I get about the company.
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Images via SomaDetect