The SomaDetect’s sensor, framed by a collection of vintage cow bells given to the company by area farmers who use their technology to produce better milk. <span class='image-credits'>Dan Cappellazzo</span>

Building a healthier food chain with milk

It started out as father-daughter quality time on weekends.

Dr. Satish Deshpande, a biophysicist, accidently discovered some interesting properties about milk while conducting other research about communicable disease and rapid diagnostics for humans. His daughter, Bethany, had just completed her academic studies in biology and climate science and she was at career crossroads (“I didn’t like what I was seeing in my field,” she said). Her dad invited her join him in his work, “now that I had all this free time,” laughed Bethany, and that was the start of what is now SomaDetect, a cutting-edge technology company that could revolutionize the dairy industry.

This was 2014 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Within the next two years, Dr. Satish and Dr. Bethany continued to study somatic cells in milk (somatic cells are any cells in a living organism, other than reproductive cells) using dairy products found in any family refrigerator. Somatic cells can indicate the health of a cow, which leads to milk quality. Dr. Satish had been using milk products to establish the calibrations he needed in studying communicable diseases, but his daughter saw an additional opportunity. By 2016, they had invited Nicholas Clermont, designer and engineer, and Bharath Sudarsan, artificial intelligence expert, to join them in founding SomaDetect. The next breakthrough came in 2017, when SomaDetect became a 43North winner. The company relocated to Buffalo by the end of that year.

Dr. Bethany said dairy farmers--whether they were family farms or commercial enterprises--can’t access information about the content of milk from their herd. SomaDetect’s technology provides essential data points that easily help farmers immediately identify any potential issues related to milk content and cow health. Artificial intelligence--Sudarsan’s expertise--and other knowledge make this possible.

“I didn’t grow up in dairy, and didn’t know much about the industry at all,” said Dr. Bethany. “We gained our knowledge thanks to farmers who were willing to talk to us, and let us meet their cows, and see the farm equipment, and learn about the job of dairy farming. SomaDetect is not a solution born on a farm, but it found its home there.”

The health of the herd is the farmer’s greatest asset. Without healthy cows producing quality dairy products, a dairy farm can’t create a saleable product. SomaDetect, Dr. Bethany said, is “all about having more information and what farmers need to know about the health of their animals and their milk.”

The process behind SomaDetect starts with a sensor installed in the milking stall that is attached to the milk hose. A cow’s milk flows through the hose and the sensor captures data from it. Because the sensor is part of the hose, it’s noninvasive to the cow. From there, algorithms take over. Farmers learn in real time if there are any illnesses or diseases which are impacting product purity. This lets them take immediate action to isolate the product and care for an ailing cow.

Right now, the 250 sensors installed on dairy farms in targeted areas in the United States and Canada are still considered prototypes. Early response is positive: Dr. Bethany said farmers are excited about the ability to have this information in real time, and before their product goes to market.

“Farmers are the early adopters who are working with our team to improve our sensors and give us feedback,” she said.

This is just one level of collaboration that is propelling this enterprise: the other is support from the entrepreneurial community. The 43North win was significant and came at a critical time in SomaDetect’s development. The cash award allowed for growth and development, and the opportunity to relocate fulfilled a company goal.

“We knew we wanted a U.S.-based office,” said Dr. Bethany, “and Buffalo made sense because of the importance of the dairy industry to New York state.”

But there’s more to 43North than financial support and real estate: building a network and finding like-minded entrepreneurs who are sharing your pathway is invaluable. 

“For me, the thing that surprised me the most is how helpful people are,” said Dr. Bethany. “43North has been incredible to us. Working out of the 43North space allowed us to connect with other 43North winners and meet other business leaders. That’s a really important part of 43North. You’re connected to some incredible people as you’re making some important decisions. 43North creates a community.” SomaDetect’s team also had a business mentor through the end of last year.

Working in Buffalo opened other doors for the business, too. Dr. Bethany said the team was able to connect with another accelerator program with the Dairy Farmers of America, as well as a leading feed company. “We got to work with senior leadership at both companies and gain their perspective on how we go to market. This experience helps us learn how to show and sell our products, and how we can continue to build our team,” she said.

Dr. Bethany is still very growth minded.

“We went from a company of six people working out of an old classroom in Canada to having a team of 25 by the end of 2018,” she said. “We’re just trying to get as many sensors used on as many cows as we can. There’s still a lot of development left to do. Consumers want to know that they are drinking milk from healthy animals coming through safe supply chain.”

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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