SomaDetect is an agricultural technology company that provides dairy farmers with key milk quality indicators. With SomaDetect, farmers are intimately connected with every cow they milk, enabling them to identify problems early, make informed decisions, and produce the best possible milk.
Hometown: Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
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Q&A with Bethany Deshpande, Co-Founder & CEO
Describe your team in three words.
Hard working, alpha male, jackhammermercilessinsatiable (I’m just kidding – this is a quote from The Office).
The startup life can be a real grind. What do you and your team members do to blow off some steam or during downtime?
To blow off steam and wind down, SomaDetect loves to cook! We make elaborate food from scratch. We make homemade pasta. We make Indian food. We make pie. Everyone helps and everyone eats.
How did your team meet each other?
Most of us met working at an entrepreneurship program called Shad Valley at Laval University (Quebec City, Canada). Nicholas worked there for 10 years, I worked there for 8, and Bryan for 3. Bryan introduced us to Bharath, who he had met during his Masters program at McGill University.
What’s the biggest reward from running your startup?
Helping dairy farmers! And getting to know them, their family, and their cows – every dairy farmer is a character and they are fantastic.
What problem is your startup solving?
Dairy farmers throughout North America lose $2B each year ($200 per cow) due to mastitis, an infection of the udder, and spend even more on costly and ineffective measurements to track and control the disease. Mastitis results in lower production of milk, lower fat content, and increased cost of treatment for the animal and the herd. This disease can have long-term implications on udder health. Cows that encounter serious cases of mastitis have lowered production and higher somatic cell counts for the rest of their lives. Mastitis is the most common disease, and the number one cause of early death for dairy cows.
Dairy farmers face strong pressure to manage costs, including the costs associated with mastitis and animal welfare. From 2013 to 2016, milk prices went down, further reducing profit margins for farmers. High input costs associated with production and farm management as well as volatile retail prices inhibit producers from increasing production. Therefore, dairy farmers have shown a preference in investing in technologies that directly or indirectly impact milk quality and herd health over productivity.
Presently, dairy farmers do not have the tools necessary to identify the risk of contamination from disease-causing bacteria present in infected cows at the farm, and testing results are not made available until after large quantities of milk from multiple farms throughout a region have already been pooled. Within the dairy barn, cows can be sick for many days before the farmer visibly identifies the presence of mastitis. It is generally observed that early detection of infected cows as part of a herd management program is the best strategy to ensure profitable and sustainable operations.
How can working in the Buffalo startup ecosystem help your startup thrive?
SomaDetect is looking for a way to enter the U.S. market, and Buffalo just makes sense. There are lots of great dairy farms in NY, and in neighboring Vermont. Buffalo also has all the resources we need to grow.
What was the moment when you thought to yourself, “This (my idea/company) could actually work?”
Our system uses a lot of algorithms and depends on them to function. This means that we do a lot of grueling work to collect samples, process them, and then run them through models. There was a period where we were waking up incredibly early (3 or 4 am), driving to farms, and collecting samples from the morning milking. Then we would spend the next 8-12 hours running the samples, one-by-one, through our sensor. Some of those days were pretty bleak, and there were points where it looked like nothing was working. We constantly smelled like cow manure and spoiled milk, and felt even worse. But I remember when we put that data through our algorithms and first saw it working out. We saw colorful lines on the screen merging together and we knew we had something.
Did you have an entrepreneurial side at a young age? Explain.
YES! Entrepreneurship has always been part of my life and my family. I watched my dad work hard to build his business. I started creating websites around the age of 12, and ended up doing some amazing work as a web developer throughout undergrad and graduate school.
Explain your startup as if you were explaining to a kindergartener.
We work with dairy farmers and help them to know exactly what’s in the milk that their cows make.
What’s an important piece of advice you received when starting up?
Talk to your customers.
In high school, you were voted:
Haha! – most awkward.
What’s your why? (Why did you create this company?)
SomaDetect is for my dad, and for his dreams of making the world a better place. My dad completed his PhD in Biophysics at the University of Guelph in 1987, the year of my birth. From the earliest days, I have watched his inventive spirit in action: tinkering, toiling, and being scrappy to get things done. I remember visiting the university by his side, running through the corridors with my brothers, and being lifted up and placed on lab benches that I was too small to reach myself. I remember how he spoke to neighbours and business leaders in our community, always excited to share his latest bit of news or realization. I remember when he left the university to take on full-time work in Toronto. The commute from Guelph was long and forced him to be away for much of the day, but he did what it took to earn a living for our family.
Then, later, I remember when I became sick in 7th grade. He would visit me at the hospital each and every day. He would talk to me when words were slow, in moments of bottle-necked thoughts and frustrations. He would share my anger and hope. A year later, when I was finally diagnosed with a benign pancreatic tumor and underwent major surgery, I remember him taking care of me as I healed. He cared for me as my body re-learned to breathe, to walk, and to laugh. Eventually, my mind healed, too, learning again to think, to reason, and to learn. And in short enough time, my dad was able to learn again, too. He returned to the basement at the end of each day, running samples and making measurements. And this continued while we were well, for one special year.
And then, as suddenly as these things happen, soon my mom was sick, too. And so my dad took care of her, as he had done for me, with patience and kindness. Together they weathered the painful storm of testing, and uncertainty, and eventually diagnoses. A tumor, too, but this time in the brain. The centre of herself. And so the story repeats in perfect symmetry. Daughter and mother. Mother and daughter. How tragic that this is what we shared, and that my father had to travel this journey with both of the women in his life. But life continues. Resilience is earned when no other option is possible. Innovation perseveres.
And so here I stand before you, an entrepreneur, a scientist, and always a daughter. I am intimately aware of the type of inventor who has been able to create this technology. It is innovation that comes from, above all else, the desire to solve a problem, to create value, to save lives, and to change the world; the unshakeable desire to make things good. It was conceived by my dad and nourished by a community that helped to make it possible. A family who encouraged him. Neighbours who listened with interest. Business-people who connected him with others. Technicians who would give him scrap pieces of metal and plastic. Researchers who shared data and ran samples, free of charge. Dairy farmers who exchanged milk samples for Coca-Cola on weekends.
SomaDetect is a technology that was invented by my dad and a company that is created by people who believed in his dream of impacting the world, even in the face of great calamity, and to care for those who cannot care for themselves, whether they be daughters or mothers, humans or cows.
If you could perform live on stage with one singer or band, who would it be? Why?
Taylor Swift. For all the reasons.
What can’t you live without?
Tea! I love Sencha teas.
When you can’t sleep, what do you do?
I read or listen to audiobooks.
Name a few items on your personal bucket list.
Going to New York City! Visiting Japan (for the tea).
Who are your heroes?
My dad. Some former bosses. My singing coaches (I also sing).
Check out the pitch that won SomaDetect the $1 million grand prize and the $10,000 People’s Choice Award!