Every once in a while, an ag journalist will make the leap from covering startups to actually running one. Such has been the case for Tamara Leigh, who spent 20 years in agriculture journalism before founding dairy tech startup EIO Diagnostics.
“The company was an opportunity to step out of communications and be able to solve a really meaningful problem in a community and an industry that I’m passionate about,” she tells AFN.
EIO’s system uses advanced imaging and machine learning to detect in real time cases of mastitis in cows. The company touts reduced labor costs and improved milk quality as a couple of the major benefits for farmers. As CEO, Leigh oversees the whole operation “from barn to boardroom,” as she puts it.
Read on to learn more about EIO and Leigh’s (TL) thoughts on the future of dairy tech, the role of farmers, and women in ag.
AFN: Let’s first get a bit of background EIO’s dairy tech business.
TL: Our core business is infrared image analysis to improve animal welfare, animal health, and productivity. And our first tool to market is for the early detection of mastitis in dairy cows. Mastitis is the number one animal health issue in the dairy industry. It affects one in three dairy cows during a lactation cycle and costs dairy farmers in the United States up to $2 billion a year. We’re using advanced infrared imaging and machine learning to detect mastitis without touching the cow or the milk, so we are literally changing the way that the dairy industry looks at [animal] health.
We’re exclusively in the US. Before Covid-19 We had a Canadian team. But we were a Delaware C Corp and we were active in the US. Covid-19 happened, the border shut down, and we got locked out of our own company. So our equipment was in Minnesota and we were in Vancouver. Since then, we’ve moved the entire operation to the US and now our team is split between California and Texas.
Right now our focus is large, commercial dairies with rotary parlors. It’s the fastest-growing segment of the US dairy industry right now. I always say we think about big data for small agriculture, but you have to get the big data to be able to scale it back. [Starting with] rotaries allows us to collect a lot of data on a lot of animals, and then we can refine those models. Our first priority is commercializing for the rotaries where we already have some early customers and installations and then our next priority is for parallel parlors, which is a different parlor configuration. From there, we’re going to be targeting robotics and a portable unit. So there are 250 million dairy cows in production worldwide; we’d like to get to all of them.
AFN: What led you personally to work in dairy tech and to start EIO?
TL: I’ve spent 20 years in the agriculture industry in communications and journalism. So my background was about storytelling and understanding people’s problems so that we could make the solutions really relevant to the readers. And the readers are largely farmers, so I was talking to farmers about farming, and often to farming audiences.
The initial idea for our technology came from a friend of mine in my hometown on Vancouver Island in Canada. He retired from the tech industry to start milking goats and making cheeses. But when he started milking, he found that the solutions that were available for mastitis screening just didn’t meet his needs and he really felt like there was something he could do better. So he used his tech skills to solve his farming problem.
Between him, our other third co-founder and myself, we launched the company. For me, the company was an opportunity to step out of communications and into being able to solve a really meaningful problem in a community and an industry that I’m passionate about. So it was about being able to do something to help improve livestock health — I love livestock, they’re amazing — and to improve the quality of milk and solve a meaningful problem for farmers.
AFN: What was the initial response from farmers?
TL: Farmers are natural innovators looking to solve problems. Every time we had a prototype, especially in the early stages, it went into a commercial barn, which meant that the farmers were really involved in iterating with the technology and the way that it was housed, mounted, the kinds of functionality that we needed, the way that we were assessing the problem. That early buy-in, I think, has gotten us a lot of interest. It helps when you’re working on something that is actually a big problem for people and they need a solution.
I’ve never walked into a barn and had somebody say, “Well, that’s dumb.” I have had people say, “Huh, we’ll see how that goes.” And there’s a little bit of a cultural difference too: the Canadian dairy industry is very different from the American dairy industry. It’s a little bit smaller; it’s a little bit more sheltered from market forces. So in the US, the dairy industry is tight margins, much larger scale, people who are willing to take risks or make big investments to be able to benefit from economies of scale and to stay alive.
From that perspective, the US dairy industry for our company has been fantastic, because [they are] as eager for a solution as we are.
AFN: How have you seen the role of women in ag evolve over the years?
TL: So I went to the Ag Expo a few weeks ago and I stopped by the Women in Ag tent. It was a cooking stage and a beer garden. It was really disappointing because that’s not my experience of agriculture. My experience is that the roles have been opening up, the leadership has been opening up, and women have stepped forward as CEOs not just at tech companies but at the largest dairy cooperatives in the country. On the farms, women are taking over in succession planning. Women are involved in agronomy.
One of the things I like about the agriculture community is that you show your worth by doing and if you operate in integrity and you have value to add to the conversation and you’re willing to listen as well as talk, there is a lot of possibility there.
There are some powerhouse women in ag that shocked me when I got here. It’s not hard to find female CEOs right now in agtech, which is super exciting. The culture of agriculture lends itself well to breaking down some of those gender barriers.
AFN: Describe a couple of big challenges you’ve encountered and overcome, dairy tech or otherwise.
TL: I’ve often said from barn to boardroom is my experience with the agriculture industry. Being able to hold that authority in a technical environment with development was really challenging and something that I had to learn how to step into. When we were developing our early prototypes, particularly as we took it into commercial barns, [I had to be] willing to step up and challenge the hardware and software folks on what we really needed. I could see ahead to what we needed, but I didn’t have the authority within the technical community to be able to really get people to listen.
I’m in a different seat now. I was the chief marketing officer then and I’m the CEO now. But a huge piece of what I do and a huge part of my journey was being able to just sit in my power and say, “I understand ag.”
Another thing is being not just a woman but a queer woman working in business and working in agriculture. We talk about transferable skill sets and important life lessons. A lot of what I’ve done my entire life, as a woman in leadership or as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, has been asking people to open their minds and think differently about things. And that is exactly the skill set that I needed as a CEO to be able to bring not just my staff in but to bring our product to customers. So I’ve had a whole lifetime of training to be able to create those spaces. And it’s amazing what happens when you do create those spaces and stand in them.