Six years ago, when Ceres Tag founders David and Melita Smith returned to the family farm, they found little had changed since leaving 20 years earlier for careers in education and engineering. Consequently, the couple started looking for ways to introduce advanced technology into the livestock industry. This was the start of the R&D that created the revolutionary Ceres Tag.
Ceres Tag is the world’s first direct-to-satellite information platform for monitoring livestock and wildlife. It uses a smart ear tag that transmits – directly from the animal – information about its location and movement from anywhere in the world where the sky can be seen.
What makes this development unique is the use of a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites. This removes the need for infrastructure such as mobile phone coverage, wi-fi or communication towers. Instead, the tag communicates directly with a satellite, allowing it to work in real time almost anywhere in the world. Apple has recently deployed the same low Earth orbit technology in its new iPhone 14 for emergency messaging.
Another important feature of the tag is its size and weight. It is currently the smallest direct-to-satellite self-charging device in the world for use on animals. A crucial contributor to this was the development of a small but long-lasting battery, which can last up to 10 years.
Ceres Tag spun out from the Smiths’ vision, where David is CEO and Melita is GM Corporate Services. Mr Smith explains why this technology is such a feat. “No one had been able to get a product so compact that talks to satellite and is able to go on the ear that can last the life of the animal.
“Everyone else had been taking technology from another sector and trying to force it to work for livestock. Nothing had been purpose-built and designed for it, and I think we have been recognised for that.”
Ceres Tag won the Powerhouse Design Award at the Good Design Australia Awards in 2021. An example is currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It also recently won the 2022 USA Kisaco Animal Health Innovation Award for Production Animals.
High-tech animal care tool
The tag’s animal monitoring facilitates pasture management, biosecurity, controlled mating, geofencing and improved security against stock theft. The tags also provided valuable data for livestock insurance, farm finance and the overall management of animal health and wellbeing.
“We connect with animals to supply the data, and users employ that data for all kinds of applications through their choice of software depending on what their farm needs,” Mr Smith says.
It’s a tool that addresses the Smiths’ quest for technology that increases farm efficiency and productivity. It also has a variety of uses in wildlife tracking and conservation, including tracking feral animals, such as pigs, deer and dogs, to achieve better control. It also has uses in traditional conservation applications such as monitoring endangered species.
Ceres Tag was assisted by many different partners throughout its development. During the initial development of the technology, it received financial support from a range of industry bodies and state and federal governments.
CSIRO helped considerably with the technology development. An international provider of satellite technology, Globalstar, was engaged to provide the communications. Ceres Tag’s manufacturer, Yomura Technologies, also helped produce a robust, small casing able to be put on the ear of animals and to withstand a long life outdoors.
Mr Smith also notes the importance of the diversity of backgrounds within the Ceres Tag team. This includes people from a water and utilities company, the fashion industry and major retail groups.
“We brought in all these skills from outside agriculture and got them involved in animal health innovation to help us build a really strong team, rather than just having everyone with a rural background with only a traditional perspective. You’d think that a weird mix of people might make it challenging, but we’ve built a really strong team out of it.”
Journey to commercialisation
Ceres Tag came to the Accelerating Commercialisation program to commercialise and build the business.
It received an Accelerating Commercialisation grant for its project ‘Launch of a Smart Livestock Tag for Cattle’ in 2019.
At that stage, Ceres Tag had done most of the research and development of the technology and needed about $1.5 million to take the step to commercialisation, Mr Smith says. This included design, tooling for manufacturing, marketing and other logistics to get the company up and running.
Mr Smith also says that the guidance phase, where the business partnered with a commercialisation facilitator from i4 Connect, was a particularly important element of the Accelerating Commercialisation program for Ceres Tag.
“With a lot of grant programs you often just get dumped with a huge stack of PDFs or some sort of online portal and asked to fill in boxes. Before we got anywhere near the actual application, we got to work one-on-one with a business manager who really got to understand Ceres Tag – who we are, what we do and why we think we needed the support.
They’ve got to know what our business needs and the justification for support because, ultimately, they would be the person who would have to present our application to the assessment panel.”
Another important aspect of the Accelerating Commercialisation service for Ceres Tag was the clear stages of progression when applying for the grant.
“The great thing for us was that we didn’t invest all this time to be told ‘no’. We went through a stage-guided process, where each time we were asked to do more work, but each time we knew it was going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.”
Trials and triumphs
Ceres Tag’s initial commercialisation facilitator was Stephen Davis, with Liz Alexander taking over in 2020.
“Even though I inherited the project partway through, I supported the company when it needed help,” Ms Alexander says. “With AusIndustry, we provided flexibility around milestones, particularly when there were severe shortages of componentry due to COVID-19.”
Due to the global supply chain issues that occurred during the pandemic, Ceres Tag had trouble sourcing electrical components. Ms Alexander assisted with reordering the program of work with new limitations and helped the company manage the costs of postponing certain milestones.
“I felt the program was really responsive,” Mr Smith says. “Other grants I’ve been involved in have not been as flexible when circumstances have changed.”
Ms Alexander believes the product innovation, as well as the strong competence and industry knowledge of the Ceres Tag team, contributed greatly to its success in receiving funding.
“They have a driven, passionate, capable management and project team. And the actual technology they were seeking to commercialise was unique, and remains unique,” she says.
Despite the unexpected setbacks, Ceres Tag successfully launched at BEEF 2021, a triennial Australian cattle industry exhibition. It was also the first smart tag company to go direct to market in an e-commerce store, which was built through the Accelerating Commercialisation service.
Over that week, Ceres Tag received an encouraging number of sales and strong interest domestically and internationally. The i4 Connect team also visited the exhibition, and Mr Smith feels their guidance, along with the Accelerating Commercialisation grant, was a great contribution to its successful launch. Ceres Tag is now exported to more than 24 countries worldwide.
“It’s a fantastic program, I recommend it to people all the time,” Mr Smith says. “Start-ups often struggle with a lack of funding. I always encourage people to approach programs like this one, which offers non-dilutive funding as well as business support and mentorship to help you deliver the project.”
The Ceres Tag team remains passionate about how technology can protect human–animal interactions, and they are currently working on a companion animal version of the smart tag to be released next year.