Pharm Robotics is an agtech startup that is developing a robotic injection system for the dairy business. Its goal is to help dairy farmers deal with labor shortages and become more economically sustainable by automating the shot delivery process for cows.
We spoke with Alexander (Alika) Chuck, Co-Founder and CFO of Pharm Robotics, who recently earned a double major in Accounting and Business Administration with an Emphasis in Finance from Chapman University.
What is your connection to the dairy business, and how did you meet your Co-Founder and CEO Marinus Dijkstra?
I’m originally from Norco, CA, a small city within Riverside County. After graduating high school, I was looking for a stable job while attending college. My best friend’s parents are partners in Cottonwood Dairy, a large dairy operation located in San Jacinto, CA. They needed someone to take over their large-scale compost operation. Marinus is also a partner in the dairy and was my supervisor and mentor for the four years I worked there.
Marinus has been an awesome mentor. He has essentially taught me everything I know about the dairy business and conceptualized the idea for automating injections to cows in 2017. Administering reproductive products and vaccines requires a lot of labor and training. The labor force within the US, on average, only achieves about a 70 percent compliance rate. This means cows do not always receive the full schedule of vaccines and reproductive hormones. We wanted to build something that would automate the process and achieve 100 percent compliance rate. So, in July of 2017, we submitted a provisional patent application for our technology, which we call Sureshot.
We were still not sure about whether we should form a company or not. Over beers one evening we kind of jokingly ran the numbers, and it was then that we realized our project had huge commercial potential. So, we decided to take the next step.
Marinus was a previous member of Dairy Farmers of America, which is a sponsor of the Sprint Accelerator. We applied and were accepted into the 2018 cohort, which ran from March to June 2018 in Kansas City, MO. It was a great opportunity to learn all about building, scaling, and disrupting through a startup.
How did you meet your other partners?
Our partners Joe Trujillo and Jason Swart are the owners of Specialized Dairy Services (SDS), a custom designer and manufacturer of dairy equipment. Marinus has known Jason and Joe for years, considering SDS was a dairy equipment vendor for Cottonwood Dairy. The main focus on Jason and Joe’s partnership in Pharm Robotics will concentrate heavily on installations of our system and assisting in sales in the western US.
Our other partner, Chris van den Berg, is the owner of https://farmbx.com, which is developing software to interconnect the whole animal and plant protein value chain. Chris is a consultant/adviser and partner on the Pharm Robotics team.
Chris is Dutch, and we met him through Marcel van Haren, who leads an ag innovation program in the Netherlands. One day in 2018, Marcel made an unplanned visit to us at Cottonwood and started talking to Marinus. Marinus told him about Pharm Robotics. Marcel then told us he wanted to introduce us to Chris. Chris is based both in the Netherlands and in southern California and will be collaborating on data collection and potentially helping us develop our A.I. platform for dairy and beef.
Who are you working with to build out Sureshot?
On the hardware side, we are contracting with a robotics integrator based out of Carlsbad, CA. They are mechanical and electrical engineers who specialize in build-outs of specialized robotics systems and system integration for a lager industrial automation company. This company will help in the longer run by providing 24-7 worldwide servicing.
Our initial focus is on injections of vaccines to maintain good animal health and reproductive products that promote pregnancy (Note: rBST is not a pregnancy hormone). It follows several reproductive protocols including persynch, ovsynch, or double ovsynch, depending on the dairy farmers preference. This synchronizes the cows’ reproductive cycles and ensures they will be ready for insemination.
On the software side, most dairies use an on-farm dairy management software program that keeps track of individual cow’s data. Sureshot will derive all information in determining shots to give from the preferred reproductive protocol in a specific dairy farmer’s dairy management program. So it’s important that Sureshot communicates correctly to that program.
When we are ready, fundraising wise, we will be having a larger ag-specific software company in the Central Valley write the interface that will connect its software and the Sureshot operating system. This software company will also integrate a function that will allow each cow’s RFID tag to be scanned for injection status. If the cow needs an injection, the cow will be restrained and Sureshot will administer the required injection.
Where are you now in terms of the development and testing of Sureshot?
We are currently looking to raise $800k to build a prototype and conduct pilots on dairies. The first pilot will be to test the restraint system, and then we will add vaccinations and test the injection technology.
In March, we attended the AgriTech Summit in San Francisco. We talked to a lot of VCs and validated that we need to raise the initial funds from angel investors – especially since we are a hardware company in the agriculture technology sector.
In April, I went to Tokyo to visit our future supplier of robotic arms. This company is the largest industrial automation company in the world. I was able to tour their headquarters and networked with lots of professionals within the fields of automation, robotics, and hardware. I again validated that our initial raise needs to come from angel capital and to keep going because this is an opportunity that will disrupt agriculture.
What is your business model for SureShot?
Our business model is selling SureShot and pharmaceuticals to large dairies. Additional revenue streams are from installation fees, licensing fees, software subscription fees, and eventually the monetization of animal health-related data. We also are looking into being able to provide financing for dairy farmers.
Our long-term income will be coming from the sale of pharmaceuticals and animal health related data. We have talked to a mid-sized international pharmaceutical company that is interested in investing. We also want to eventually expand to the 100 million head cattle beef industry.
What is your value proposition and how are you pricing the system?
With SureShot, dairies can look at significant labor savings and increased productivity from 100 percent injection rates – upwards of $285 per cow per year. This figure is based on a reduction in labor costs of $85 per cow and a productivity gain of $200 from better pregnancy rates. The $200 includes revenue from higher pregnancy rates, a more efficient and effective herd, and larger volumes of higher quality milk.
Our target market is the 25 percent of US dairy farmers who milk the 75 percent of cows in the US and who wish to reduce labor costs and become more efficient through robotics and automation. We believe the best way to achieve this is through implementing Sureshot in their diary operations.
We were in the Central Valley in late May to gain market validation via a focus group of dairymen. At our lunch, 60 percent said they would be interested in purchasing an automated system at a base price of $230k thousand.
Pharm Robotics is a great story of farmer-innovators reaching out to the tech community to make their idea a reality – the inverse of a lot of our stories, in which innovators from the tech community reach out to farmers for product-market fit. We look forward to seeing how it transforms the dairy industry.
About the author: Leanna Sweha is an attorney with an agtech background and is Program Director for AgStart. She is passionate about promoting new sustainable agriculture and food companies.