A hand-held tool that utilises non-invasive breath diagnostic technology and can be used at the point of care will bring unprecedented accuracy and ease to diagnosing pregnancies and disease in Australian livestock.
It’s the brainchild of entrepreneur Dr Bronwyn Darlington, the founder and Managing Director of Agscent. Living on her family’s 5000-acre cattle and sheep property near Canberra, she was inspired by the growing pace of development in the bio and space-tech sectors and wanted to develop a tool that would enable breath collection from livestock to generate more accurate and convenient diagnoses.
With the surprising addition of key sensors in the form of an e-nose nanofiber technology invented by NASA to analyse the breath of astronauts on the Mars Mission, the result will be a revolutionary breath-sensing technology in the form of a hand-held breathalyser. Equipped with a cup that fits over the animal’s snout, it collects samples that can be scanned for pregnancies or disease-related biomarkers. The fast, non-invasive test will be able to be performed at the point of care, offering huge potential to improve animal welfare and productivity.
“Technology in farming has been instrumental in optimising broadacre farming, but not in livestock management, which is what our farm focuses on. The lack of technology for our requirements drove me to create a solution myself,” Dr Darlington says.
Shooting for the stars with NASA
To advance her unprecedented idea, Dr Darlington quite literally shot for the stars. She began to search for potential technologies which could take Agscent’s ability to identify biomarkers in breath into the field – quite literally, into the paddock. Reading about the amazing work NASA had been doing on sensor technology for the Mars Mission gave her the breakthrough she needed.
“Agscent was seeking technology for diagnosing breath molecules. I wondered who would be both well-funded and doing molecular analysis. I know it sounds crazy, but I just thought – what about NASA?” she says.
“After wading through their entire online patent catalogue, I sent them a basic inquiry email asking if their Mars mission human medical diagnostic sensors would work with cow breath. They replied! After securing a NASA Technology Evaluation License and undertaking trials in the US to establish the suitability of the sensors, we are now working with the sensor inventor and the NASA Technology Transfer Unit on a commercial license.”
Agscent has just completed its second US-based evaluation trial with NASA sensors. The company is also sourcing a homegrown option from Sydney’s Macquarie University.
The Accelerating Commercialisation grant – a vital piece of the jigsaw
Another significant step to realising the full potential of the device has been Agscent’s involvement in the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation service, administered by i4 Connect, which resulted in a grant of $600,000.
In addition to funding and vital mentoring from i4 Connect Facilitator Jenny Aiken, Dr Darlington explains that the grant process was instrumental in crystallising and describing the concept behind Agscent in a way that others – including NASA – could understand and support.
“Working with our i4 Connect Facilitator, Jenny, was fabulous on multiple levels,” she says. “She provided us with the right environment to format our thoughts in such a structured way. With her guidance we were able to put our User Cases into a language that others understood and that led to market interest.”
From design to device
As no product existed to extract a useful breath sample from livestock, let alone analyse it in the field, Agscent commenced thousands of on-the-ground trials and collaborations with farm managers and veterinarians.
This resulted in the design of a unique new device that collects breath from one snout of an animal and diverts ambient air away, resulting in a reliable respiratory sample. The nature of livestock farming meant the device had to not only be highly robust, but impervious to extremes of temperature and weather.
Agscent’s testing to date has focused on reproduction particularly in cattle but also now in sheep using field research methods with trials conducted with more than 2400 animals.
“It has been pretty handy having access to herds of animals on our own farms,” Dr Darlington says.
Agscent has recently submitted another patent application relating to biomarkers found in breath which are representative of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), a project supported by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA).
Empowerment through the application process
Since receiving the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation grant and going through the program under Jenny’s guidance and hands-on mentorship, Agscent hasn’t looked back. “Agscent is set to transform livestock diagnostics, and we have the largest animal health companies in the world monitoring us,” Dr Darlington says.
Dr Darlington encourages other entrepreneurs to apply for the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation service. Her experience proves that it can be invaluable to take the time to step back and consider your own proposal from a strictly business angle.
From the farm paddocks of Canberra to NASA in the US, via a trip to Mars – it’s been quite the journey so far.
From agri-tech to biotech
An unintended, but exciting consequence of the development of Agscent’s device for the agricultural market is the discovery that it is likely to have future human applications. While staying focused on cattle for now, they also now have an eye on the much larger and lucrative biotech market.
“We are currently in a fundraising phase, raising the capital needed to get us to market,” Dr Darlington says. “The NASA commercialisation requirements require us to manufacture the e-nose component in the US, which has also shifted our go-to market strategy to be both US and Australia focused. It is a huge opportunity as our model of product development is very user-centric and we are trialling each product iteration with huge US dairies and lots of farms in Australia, while continuing to do trials on the sensors with NASA. It’s pretty busy right now!”