Investment in breakthrough tech could breathe new life into rural areas

Jan Shepel
Isomark’s chief science officer, Dan Butz, demonstrates how a breath sample is collected to determine if a cow has any respiratory disease that could contribute to herd losses. After 'wanding' the cow to get her electronic identification, Butz collected a breath sample which revealed the cow had no respiratory disease. This emerging technology was developed on the UW-Madison campus and the company has patents that are licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

CAMBRIDGE ‒ Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin visited the Hinchley family’s dairy farm near Cambridge on Jan. 18 to highlight investment programs that produce innovations to help farmers and rural residents. During a roundtable discussion, investors talked with Baldwin about improvements that could make these investment programs more useful, when Congress begins discussion on the next farm bill this year.

To demonstrate the kinds of innovations that these investments can bring to farms, visitors witnessed the Isomark Health device in action as it was demonstrated on dairy cows in Hinchley’s freestall barn where cows are milked by several robots.

Isomark, which received investments from CoBank through the Rural Business Investment Program, has developed technology that Wisconsin dairy farms use to detect bacterial and viral infections within 30 seconds, before any visible signs occur, and help reduce fatalities and medical costs.

The company's latest generation Canary-AG device is designed to help dairy farmers and feedlot owners detect bacterial and viral infections in cattle within 30 seconds, before any visible signs occur, and help reduce fatalities and medical costs.

The technology features a mask and hose that screens animals in real time by collecting animal breath directly from the cow which is then processed through spectroscopy on a four-wheeled device that the technician moves from cow to cow. Using AI technology, the results are displayed using a green (healthy) or red (sick) light to indicate whether or not the cow has respiratory disease, like shipping fever.

Isomark’s device is mounted on wheels and can be moved from cow to cow in a feedlot or freestall area. The company is working to develop additional technology that could allow it to be used in milking parlors or in robot milking stalls, said company co-founder Fariba Assadi-Porter.

Moving from cow to cow, the company’s chief science officer, Dan Butz scanned cows with a wand for their electronic identification, and then positioned a mask up to their nose to collect a breath. Data is stored in the cloud and helps farmers or feedlot owners determine which cows need to be looked at further for respiratory disease.

Company founder and CEO Fariba Assado-Porter explained that the device was designed to improve cattle health through the early detection of costly respiratory diseases. Four of the Canary-AG devices have been built with initial funding, she said, which includes investments from many of the entities that were present at the Jan. 18 event: Johnsonville Ventures, Compeer Financial and Co Bank, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation among them.

Investment would expand technology's reach

Assado-Porter said her company is still in the process of raising funds to further expand what she called “the disruptive technology” and use it on more cattle. The first prototype was tested in May 2020 and the pandemic held up its development. But she is hoping that her company may become the “Exact Science” of animal health. (Exact Science is the Madison-based company that developed the technology to test human fecal samples for colon cancer, without the invasive process of a colonoscopy.)

Farmer Tina Hinchley said that their robots provide a lot of information but that this technology would add another layer to help her take care of her cows.

In the freestall barn Baldwin heard an extensive explanation of the device and its use from company co-founder Butz who demonstrated its use. Baldwin said that a company like this which was founded in Wisconsin through private and public investment has the potential to help farms of all sizes by helping them keep their cattle healthy. “Anytime we can have a breakthrough technology like this,” Baldwin said, “we want to make sure it happens.”

The investment she referred to was made possible by the 2008 farm bill, which is due for its next update in this session of Congress. Baldwin said she learned about Isomark a decade ago at its very beginning.

Reducing risks, increasing cost-savings

Assadi-Porter said additional funding will allow the company to add more talent and collect more data over the next few years. It is estimated that U.S. feedlots lose $1 billion each year due to bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and that this technology could prevent many of those losses by determining very early which cattle have viral, bacterial and fungal infections. This early detection would mean considerable cost-saving potential through individualized response treatment options.

According to Assadi-Porter, about 70 percent of all feedlot deaths are caused by BRD, which is sometimes called “shipping fever”. The highly contagious disease puts three-quarters of the animals in feedlots at high risk.

She said that when the device was tested on cattle it resulted in pneumonia identification rates of over 99 percent. From the early tests on feedlot cattle, Isomark is now ready for application in the dairy industry and could potentially be utilized in the future to address the $1 trillion human health market.

Assadi-Porter explained that the device is based on a unique algorithm that was validated by an independent third party in 2021. The software was tested over 10,000 feedlot breath data points and this data confirmed 85 percent accuracy in pneumonia identification at least one week prior to onset of visible sickness in the animals.

Isomark has an exclusive license from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) at the UW-Madison for five U.S. patents on the use of breath isotopes for detection of disease. The patent protection includes the company’s focus on carbon isotopes, and on nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur breath isotopes.

While the demonstration on the Hinchley cows took place in a freestall barn, Assadi-Porter said they are working on a way to get the breath samples when dairy cows are in the milking parlor – or in this case, the robot stall.

Isomark co-founder's Fariba Assadi-Porter, left, and Dan Butz is joined by Wisconsin dairy farmer Tina Hinchley, center. Isomark's  breath-analyzing technology was demonstrated on Hinchley’s cows.

Tina Hinchley said that her robots provide 110 data points per cow and it all comes to her phone but she would welcome another data point that would tell her more about the respiratory health of her cows – especially the recently fresh cows.

“The key is having healthy cows,” she added.

Enabling more investments

During a roundtable discussion in the Hinchley’s shop, Aaron Knewtson, vice president for Food and Agribusiness with Compeer Financial said that investments in ventures like this business and others can help improve life in rural areas. “We want to make those opportunities bigger.” Under current rules dictated by the enabling legislation, if Farm Credit companies contribute 50 percent or more to an investment fund, then 50 percent of the investments must be Farm Credit-eligible.

He suggested that a change in that rule would enable more investments. He also said that the rules dictate that in order to qualify for investment funding, the company must be headquartered in a community of less than 50,000 residents. The fund could be more helpful, he said, if that requirement got changed in the upcoming farm bill deliberations.

Sometimes, investor representatives explained, a $50,000 or even a $250,000 investment from their funds is not enough to entice a company to move to a smaller community to qualify for the fund’s rules.

Innova, a Memphis-based entity, invests in high-growth companies and jobs in health care, technology and AgTech fields by providing seed capital. Dean Didato, a partner with the company, was at the Hinchley farm and echoed Knewtson’s comments regarding improvements that could be made to the legislation to allow for further investments to help rural areas.

According to its website, Innova has invested over $32 million in 119 startups, attracting over $90 million in outside capital. Didato told the roundtable that when these kinds of investments are studied, the dollars invested in a project are multiplied 5.3 times in a local economy.

Knewston said he gets calls all the time from companies looking for startup venture capital. The network of investors includes Farm Credit banks but also community banks that are keen to invest in companies that will breathe life into rural areas.

Greg Keenan, with WARF, said early investors are important to get companies like Isomark Health off the ground. “These early investors are looking for startups like this. These are very sophisticated investors who know the space. We have confidence in a strong team of investors to go with a strong team of inventors,” said the senior director of WARF’s Ventures and Accelerator Program.

Didato told Baldwin that there is a nice network of investors that have been developed “but we need to bring more investment to rural areas.”

Didato explained to Wisconsin State Farmer that Innova Memphis is a USDA-licensed rural business corporation, but despite that title, no taxpayer money is involved. The licensing gives his company the ability to raise money from investors and put it into early-stage projects that improve farm technology.

They are not involved in plant seed and trait technology, he added, but are focused on projects that can help with labor, efficiency, productivity and even data processing for farmers. “It’s early, but it’s really exciting. It’s fun to go out to operations and see people get excited about new technology.” The fact that the USDA licenses these investment funds to help develop rural areas means that people who understand the agriculture sector are part of it.

“We have sixth generation farm kids involved,” he added.

Knewtson, who represents Compeer’s interests in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, told us they have been soliciting investors in the Farm Credit sector since they got started in 2015 and currently have eight limited partners. “There are a lot of people asking why we didn’t do this earlier,” he said.

There are $1 billion in commitments to these funds and $7 billion in opportunities, he said. “We can do a lot more.”

Baldwin does not sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee, but is on the Agricultural Appropriations Committee, where she chairs the subcommittee for Agriculture and Rural Development.