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Smartbell rings in the Internet of Cows

Cropped shot of a farmer using her tablet while standing outside with her cows.

Early in 2016 engineer and Cambridge MBA graduate Jose Chitty found himself pitching three-month-old start-up Smartbell to an audience featuring the great and the good of the Cambridge Cluster, technology specialists from across the UK, and, prominent in the front row, HRH the Duke of York. Holding high a cuddly black and white toy cow named Daisy, Jose succeeded in capturing their attention: “Welcome,” he said, “Welcome to the Internet of Cows.”

The founders of Smartbell, Jose Chitty (MBA 2014) and Veena Adityan, are gaining a reputation as agri-tech game-changers with technology that connects cows to the internet. They have secured an R&D grant from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative which is enabling them to develop the Smartbell product line for dairy and other livestock. The startup has attracted much media coverage and been featured in the Economist and BBC Look East.

The Smartbell technology that underpins the Internet of Cows is a fitness tracker that’s attached to each animal. It improves herd health and yields by giving farmers advance warning of significant threats to well-being such as reduced activity and lameness. Smartbell is running a trial on the Cambridge University Farm herd, having completed a feasibility pilot last year. CEO Veena is already excited about the next milestone: “By the time this trial ends in early spring, we’ll be ready to implement our technology on a wholly commercial farm.”

Adding value with meaningful ventures

Veena’s expertise is in technology and cloud-based architecture, and after a ten-year career working with Amazon in Seattle and San Francisco, she found the lure of the start-up hard to resist: “I interviewed with a couple of companies in Silicon Valley, but the Cambridge start-up scene has an emphasis on meaningful venture creation I found very attractive. I felt that if I relocated to Cambridge I could add more value.” With her goal still very much an entrepreneurial career, Veena signed up for the Cambridge MBA. “Once I was part of Cambridge Judge Business School’s (CJBS) community, I was able to develop my own idea for a start-up and explore the support available for hi-tech start-ups in and around the University. I seized those opportunities with both hands!”

Veena and Jose joined forces at the Entrepreneurship Centre’s Venture Creation Weekend run in the Autumn of 2015 on the theme of the Internet of Things and Smart Cities. After an intense two days of ideation, pitching and networking, the Smartbell team won first place in the competition and subsequently gained a place on the Accelerate Cambridge programme.

“The impulse behind Smartbell is simple,” explains Veena. “We wanted to use our technological expertise to improve animal welfare and increase our connection with the environment.” Veena’s research had convinced her that the relatively low-tech dairy farming sector was the place to start. “I knew the dairy industry was struggling and realised early on that our technology could have a deep impact on operational efficiency by early detection of sickness in a herd.”

Fast-track to traction

When launching Smartbell, Veena appreciated that she while she had considerable experience in software development, project planning and management, she hadn’t come across many cows, much less many dairy farmers during her time at Amazon. Jose’s background in the oil and gas industry saw him travel the world rotating through postings in Brazil and Argentina, Texas and Dubai, but was similarly lacking in agricultural expertise. “I ran programmes in 35 countries in six years, and was on a fast-track to the board room,” says Jose, “but, like Veena, I was definitely looking for something where I could make more of an impact.” Both understood from the beginning that the strength and contribution of entrepreneurs everywhere is their ability to translate their own specific expertise to a wider benefit.

“Support from the coaches at Accelerate Cambridge complemented our own experience and helped us prioritise our focus so that within a very short space of time we were seen as relevant, exciting interest and getting traction in the agri-tech sector,” says Jose. “The value of the coaches is that they each share their own expertise and experience, so that as we develop our business we can get impartial informed feedback. They helped us answer the question: what are we missing?

Business benefits from time and independence

“I came to Cambridge because of its exceptional start-up ecosystem, and there’s no doubt that the Cambridge Cluster really works”, Veena observes. “Being part of the Accelerate Cambridge programme opens doors and makes connections like nothing else.” At the same time, Veena points out, “it can be a scary and intimidating world.” The impartial, coordinated support from the tight-knit coaching team and Accelerate Cambridge Director, Hanadi Jabado, taught them to swim in what can be dangerous waters. “Being part of the Accelerate Cambridge family has certainly helped us dodge a few bullets,” says Veena. As Smartbell moves toward its first formal funding round Jose agrees: “Above all, support from such an early stage not only accelerated us from from idea to implementation, it’s bought time and independence for the Internet of Cows.”