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Virtual fence, precision farming

A San Diego-based agritech startup with a Gisborne link has raised US$12m to take its virtual fencing platform to market in the US and Australia . . .

A gritech company Vence has raised over NZ$16 million to help take its virtual fencing and herd management solutions to the world.

The latest funding round completed last month will allow the Gisborne-linked company to scale up the delivery of its platform in its entry markets of the United States and Australia. Its focus is on building tools which enable precision livestock farming and drive the adoption of regenerative practices, while improving profitability for farmers.

Vence was founded in 2016 after Gisborne's Jasper Holdsworth, whose family has farmed near Te Karaka for over 100 years, identified an opportunity. Reviewing the cost structure on the farm, he pondered a way to use technology to complement animal movement and management.

Rather than try to solve the problem himself, he reached into his network to find people who could help build a solution . . . and a business was built.

The San Diego-based startup uses GPS-enabled wearable collars to keep cattle where they're supposed to be. Users digitally create the borders of the pasture they would like to create. If a cow is about to stray out of bounds, their collar first emits a warning noise; if that doesn't get the point across, it follows up with a light electrical shock — just like a physical electric fence.

A successful capital raise of $US12m was completed early last month and was led by Tyche Partners, a California-based venture capital firm focused on investments in early and early-growth stage companies with disruptive technologies.

Existing investors Rabobank Food & Ag Innovation Fund, Grantham Environmental Trust's Neglected Climate Opportunities fund and Eniac Ventures were joined in the latest funding round by new investors JMI Service and Trailhead Capital.

“Pastureland represents over a third of global land mass and there are more livestock globally than there are cars — yet less than 1 percent of the livestock industry is digitised,” said chief executive and co-founder of Vence Frank Wooten.

“We see this as ripe opportunity to help transform one of the world's largest ($2 trillion-plus) and most mature industries by providing tools for farmers to enable data-driven decisions and precision management.

“For regenerative agriculture to work at scale, it needs to generate profits for farmers/ranchers as well as enhance their quality of life. We built a platform which does both.

“We are quite excited to have the opportunity to bring this technology commercially to market and bring customers a technology which has a triple benefit — profits/planet/people's quality of life.

“We will double our headcount this year to 20-plus and likely grow to 30 by the end of next year. The company will continue to be based in San Diego but we will begin to have more of the staff remote — already adding in Australia thus far.”

Tony Chao from Tyche Partners said, “At Tyche, we love rolling up our sleeves and solving hard problems alongside passionate founders with a transformational vision.

“Vence has built an incredibly compelling solution that touches our daily diets, makes tremendous economic sense for its rancher customers, and has the potential to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. We are excited to play a role in advancing Vence's vision and to improve the financial and environmental wellbeing of an important pillar of the economy.”

Other startups trying to provide farmers with virtual fencing solutions include Australia's Agersens, which secured US$15 million in funding from New Zealand farm equipment maker Gallagher in 2019. Kiwi startup Halter is working on dairy cow herding technology, while Norway's Nofence is doing the same for goats. US co-op Organic Valley is also exploring satellites as a way to help its dairy farmers better manage their pastures through enhanced imagery and other data sets.

Challenges are plentiful when it comes to delivering a virtual fencing product that is reliable, affordable and can be integrated with existing operations. Vence's collars face extreme conditions — seeing as they are attached to 700kg animals in environments with highly variable weather.

Highly-relevant, sustainable technology

Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund managing director Richard O'Gorman said Vence had a great investor syndicate and they were “thrilled to continue to support this highly-relevant, sustainable technology and accelerate its offering to the livestock community”.

“We originally connected with Vence through the FoodBytes! platform, invested in 2018 and have since worked closely with the company to accelerate the remote herd management solution.”

Vence has received interest from nearly 5000 livestock farms globally. The company will be ramping up deployment of the first commercial version of its product this year on farms across the United States and Australia. Over time, however, the company's goals are much larger.

Grasslands are the world's second largest carbon sink behind the ocean, and rotational grazing has been shown to accelerate the pace at which those lands sequester carbon. The company said it believes by building tools to help manage animals and improve productivity, it can enable quicker adoption of these practices.

VENCED IN: A bull wears one of Vence’s “virtual fencing” collars. The collars will cost farmers roughly NZ$50 a year per animal, with the price varying depending on the number of head in the herd. Battery life for the collars is about two years when used in large pastures like in northern Australia and parts of the United States. A “worst case” battery life when used in smaller pastures is six to nine months. Picture supplied