When robot chicken startup Mimictec was trying to get off the ground, a little bit of support from local government and agricultural associations would have gone a long way, according to founder and chief executive Eleanor Toulmin.
Founded in 2016 by Toulmin and co-founder Sarah Last, Mimictec creates robot chickens to help rear chicks on poultry farms, increasing productivity and reducing stress among the real chickens.
Speaking at LaunchVic’s Thrive conference in Geelong today, Toulmin told an audience of local council representatives the first year of running Mimictec was primarily spent trying to break into the poultry industry, “which is a sentence no one has ever said before”.
Getting in touch with the startup’s target market was unexpectedly difficult, she says. Chicken farmers are typically very private and don’t necessarily want to be found.
“The only way I’ve been able to break into it is through introductions,” she said.
Toulmin’s father works in irrigation, she explained, and so he reached out to his contacts who reached out to their contacts, and eventually she was put in touch with the right people.
“That speaks to how friendly Aussies are, especially in spaces like agriculture,” she said.
“People want to see innovation coming through, and they want to have a home-grown success story,” she added.
However, all of these contacts were made through personal networks, with no help from farming association bodies, which Toulmin has found to be “almost uniformly unhelpful”.
She acknowledges these associations “don’t want every Tom, Dick or Harry who has hairbrained ideas about robot chickens to break into their networks and call al their farmers up”.
However, a lot of farmers are already struggling with challenges like this year’s drought and very small margins, and if startups like Mimictec are not able to reach them, they’re not able to help them.
She challenged local government representatives in attendance to try to find a way to open those networks. It’s not about opening up their entire contact book to anyone who asks for them, but about putting startups in touch with one or two businesses they could really help, and giving them a small in into the industry.
“Find ways to get approval from your constituents or association members to enable innovation connections to happen,” Toulmin said
“If you’re able to find a way you can leverage your own brand, whether that’s as a local council or as an industry body, to break down those barriers and make introductions, that’s incredibly helpful and important,” she added.
For a lot of startups, they don’t need local governments to understand the technology, Toulmin added, they merely need someone who is willing to have a conversation about it.
Even if its “an old fuddy-duddy who isn’t entirely sure how to use a computer”, if they’re willing to have a conversation and a meeting with an entrepreneur to talk through the solution, “that’s where really exciting things start to happen”.
In Mimictec’s most recent trials, the technology reduced feed use for chicken farming by 10%, Toulmin said, adding that for most farmer feed makes up 60% of their expenses.
“If you’re able to write off 10% of that, that goes straight to their bottom line,” she said.
“While they may not get the robot chicken part, they really get the savings part,” she added.
“And that’s why support and investment is so important.”