Dunedin agritech firm Techion is turning testing animal poop into a highly scalable business and aiding human health while it’s at it.
At a glance
When your product attracts the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation it’s pretty clear you’re on to something.
Dunedin-based agritech company Techion is better known for measuring parasites in livestock. Now its technology is also helping to manage disease among children in developing countries.
Starworms is a global project funded by the Gates Foundation aimed at eliminating and controlling intestinal parasites in people. Large scale de-worming programmes are underway, but there is a risk of the worms developing resistance.
In the same way that it’s helping farmers to know when to drench and worm their animals and how much treatment to use, Techion’s internet connected, image-based diagnostic testing tools are also aiding human health.
It’s part of the worldwide ‘One Health’ approach which recognises the interaction between animal and human diseases, Techion founder Greg Mirams says.
“We got brought in because of our success with animals,” he says. “That’s how a little company from Dunedin which has been testing sheep poop for years ended up as part of the Gates Foundation.”
Simple diagnosis for an invisible disease
It’s not the only international organisation to notice the Kiwi start-up. In 2014 giant UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s sought Techion’s help with a study of parasite management among British and New Zealand farmers. Sainsbury’s was interested in improving the food supply chain and finding ways to reduce chemical use.
The study found that 37% of New Zealand farmers and an alarming 84% of their British counterparts were regularly using an ineffective drench.
Techion’s FecpacG2 and DrenchSmart tools make faecal egg count testing faster and easier to do on the spot. Frequent, accurate testing allows farmers to treat the right animals at the right time with the most effective products.
Mirams says Techion’s diagnostic tools turn an invisible disease into a visible one. He likens it to spraying thistles in a paddock. “You wouldn’t spray if there were no thistles there, and equally if you spray and they wilt but recover after two weeks you’d be pretty annoyed,” he says.
His early testing kits involved a bulky microscope and required farmers to mix up faeces in solution and put it on a slide themselves. It was a hard sell, and it was obvious the product needed further development.
With the help of an initial Callaghan Innovation grant Mirams was able to develop the first generation of the tools we know today, and attract the attention of Starworms.
Now the company produces wireless, battery-powered intelligent testing devices that can connect with any other internet enabled device. “It’s a bit like going from a flip phone to a smart phone,” Mirams says.
Selling to the world
The technology has allowed Techion to deploy its product around the world and support it from Dunedin.
As a result of the Sainsbury’s project Techion established a UK sales office, and is also doing a brisk trade in Australia.
Its successes are the culmination of over 20 years of hard work by Mirams, who is a farmer by trade.
“This is what you call a muddy boots development, we didn’t come out of academia. If you’d have asked me years ago, ‘would I be running a tech company’, I would have said no.”
But in fact, Techion is developing into a classic software-as-a-service model with all the potential for scaling that comes with that.
The next challenges for the company are to reduce the number of steps involved in the testing and speed up processing times. It also wants to develop an algorithm that will be able to recognise and identify the species of parasites, further automating its system.
Techion is now being assisted with a third round of R&D grants support from Callaghan Innovation, and Customer Manager Agritech, Justin Andrist, has worked alongside the company throughout its journey. He has even introduced the firm to a potential American investor and board member via another company he worked with.
Andrist believes the business has massive potential.
“Techion is providing the whole system to vets and farmers, you’re not moving product around, it will be wireless and mobile with results delivered quickly,” he says. “It will be highly scalable once it’s done.”
Mirams says over the years Andrist has gone above and beyond to help him.
“Callaghan Innovation has been there from the very early stages and assisted us in a vast variety of areas.”
To learn more about Techion you can view their profile on Scale-Up NZ, a free online platform providing valuable insights on hundreds of companies in New Zealand’s innovation ecosystem.
Updated: 30 July 2019