Agritech evangelist

Who would have imagined that facial recognition of cows could revolutionise dairy farming? David Hunt did, and he's just getting started.

Photo: Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

When David Hunt talks about agriculture and technology, his eyes sparkle and he gestures expressively. His enthusiasm is infectious.

His rich background in agronomy and a strong affinity with technology have put him in a unique position to digitise and optimise one of the most traditional and labour-intensive industries in the world.

The 35-year-old CEO and co-founder of the Irish agritech business Cainthus made his mark on the world when he developed facial recognition technology for cows and other livestock. The resulting visual information can be translated into actionable data to improve efficiency and environmentally sustainable use of resources.

"Brave moo world" was how The Irish Independent newspaper described Cainthus, but Mr Hunt is confident that he will have the last laugh on the headline writers as his business extends its reach around the globe in the years to come.

Growing up in a small village in Ireland with 300 people, Mr Hunt did not quite fit in with his immediate surroundings. He and his brother Ross were obsessed with technology, while their neighbours tended to be known for their interest in the humanities, arts and linguistic abilities.

Describing himself as a "natural geek", he and his brother souped up personal computers to create powerful gaming machines and hacked -- or, perhaps a better way to put it, managed to have access to -- expensive computer games for free.

Their extreme curiosity began when they were very young. They tore the family's first-ever PC to bits and pieces to understand how it functioned.

"We were seven years old," Mr Hunt recalls with a smile. "Our mother burst into tears when she saw what happened. She'd bought this very expensive device and first thing we did was obviously destroyed it."

All was not lost, however. "We put it back together and it kinda worked," Mr Hunt says bashfully.

In 1997, When Mr Hunt entered a school competition seeking ways to make information about his school more accessible to parents. He and his friends decided to create a web page to display the rooms and facilities in the school with pictures, descriptions, history and hyperlinks.

"We didn't even win the Top 3. The winners were collages of photographs glued on the wall," he says.

It was still very early in the internet age, but one sharp-eyed teacher judged the geeky students' magnum opus worthy of entry in Ireland's first-ever national webpage competition, where it won first prize. However, the school administrators of the day didn't view the achievement as meriting a day off to accept the award.

"If a 14-year-old did something like that today, it would be front-page news," he says. "When I was growing up, the digital economy wasn't well understood and the internet was seen as a weird thing so it just went unrecognised."

NOT A TYPICAL BANKER

Growing up in a family that owns Ireland's largest grain importer and exporter, Comex McKinnon, Mr Hunt is no stranger to the world of agronomy. However, he initially wanted to escape a life that revolved around agriculture, so he decided to pursue his higher education in economics.

DAVID HUNT

CEO, Cainthus

BORN
- 1983

EDUCATION
- 2001-05: Trinity College Dublin
- 1995-2001: Clongowes Wood College, Clane, Ireland

CAREER EXPERIENCE
- 2015-present: CEO, Cainthus
- 2016-present: Faculty member, Singularity University, California
- 2014-present: CEO, Agrilarity
- 2006-10: Corporate banking officer, Allied Irish Banks (AIB)

"I had no intention of coming back to agriculture and I couldn't think of anything better to do at the time," he says. "I thought business and economics would allow me to earn better pay."

Mr Hunt started his career as a corporate banker with the Irish retail bank AIB. And although it only took him six months to realise that this path was ill-suited to his interests, he ended up spending five years in Dublin, New York and Toronto.

One reason he prolonged the stay was that his father encouraged him not to give up. If he quit something after six months, his father said, he would never stop quitting in life, so Mr Hunt decided to give the profession a shot.

Another reason for staying was that he had managed to integrate his obsession with technology into traditional banking practice on top of his daily job as an analyst.

For example, he wrote a program that automated the tedious task of finding discrepancies in interest payments, which usually required hundreds of man-hours per week.

"I couldn't understand why we needed to print out two lists and compare them line by line, manually. It was a complete waste of time," he recalls. "The system allowed 300 man-hours of time to be reduced to pressing a button and a 15-minute waiting time for the report."

Inefficiency is a pet peeve of Mr Hunt. "It's a thing with people who are good with technology," he says. "They tend to have an element of laziness in the back of their characters that prompts them to do things with technology in a more efficient manner."

Being nimbler and more efficient allowed Mr Hunt to free up time to do other innovative things at the bank, such as designing credit-risk and anti-fraud models as well as building a portfolio management tool.

"They didn't ask me to build it but it seemed like a good idea and we needed one, so I did it just for fun," he says, smiling.

But even while he continued to pursue his banking job, Mr Hunt never completely abandoned his agricultural roots. Given the family's business interest, he tried to stay abreast of trends in the industry.

As it turned out, a visit to an agribusiness symposium in 2010 led to an epiphany for the young banker.

Mr Hunt had been invited to the event in Kentucky by Pearse Lyons, an Irish biochemist and entrepreneur who founded Alltech, a company that aims to improve global animal health and nutrition industry.

"Dr Pearse Lyons was a very strong influence and mentor in my life," says Mr Hunt.

At the symposium, he realised that the world is on the verge of the next major agricultural revolution and it would be fundamentally driven by digitisation and technology.

"The symposium made me realise that this is going to be a monumental period in human history. Even if I don't end up doing anything, it was going to be interesting just only to be a bystander there," he says.

Not long afterward, he decided close the book on his five-year banking career. By this point, however, many of the things he had done "just for fun" had transformed Mr Hunt into one of the most valuable assets at the firm.

"They weren't happy when I told them I didn't want to work there anymore. They offered me a big salary increase and a promotion, but at that point, it wasn't about money, it was about being interested in what I do every day. I was completely uninterested and disengaged from banking," he says.

THE TRANSITION

Though he initially did not consider agriculture as a career, the activities that Mr Hunt has enjoyed all his life still revolve around the outdoors, nature and the wilderness.

Right after he graduated from Trinity College Dublin and prior to joining the bank, he decided to get himself qualified as a game ranger -- a formative experience that reinforced the belief about what he loved most in life.

"I spent three months living in a tent in southern Africa with no electricity, no internet connection, no hot water," he recalls. "I love nature and the outdoors and this experience allowed me to gain a greater understanding of what I love and get fully immersed in it."

Having put banking behind him, Mr Hunt decided to make use of the ranger's qualifications he had obtained earlier and get a job at a duck-hunting range. His role was to maintain the habitat and environment to ensure optimum conditions for the ducks. Many companies in southern Africa maintain tracts of land with populations of ducks and other wild fowl that can be hunted legally.

"I had to make sure that 3,000-plus ducks are swimming around, running happily and having flourishing lives. And once a month, people would come and shoot them. … It was quite a weird experience," he admits.

After spending nine months at the range, Mr Hunt finally returned to Comex McKinnon, joining his brother who had already started building a computer system to digitise and automate the family-run company's back-end system.

The brothers believe that the grain trading business as it is practised now will be obsolete in the next decade unless it becomes more digitised, efficient and able to provide additional value-added services.

"The easy part was building the computer system to automate and digitise the process, but the difficult part was persuading people who have been doing things in a certain way for 20 or 30 years," he says.

"We also had people trying to sabotage the new system as it brought full transparency to every aspect of the business and they didn't want it to be completely transparent."

To persuade current users that the new system was more efficient, the brothers had to run the system in parallel with the old one. Within three months, however, everybody was noticing the exponential gains from the new system.

"The net result was that we doubled the size of the company from US$108 million in revenue to $203 million in two and a half years without hiring anybody," Mr Hunt says.

They also managed to increase the volume of grain handled from 450,000 tonnes to almost 1 million tonnes while increasing profitability and reducing overhead costs.

The global reach of Comex has allowed the Hunt brothers to view agricultural practice on a global scale and understand the fundamental problems the world faces.

"The biggest problem fundamentally boils down to a lack of empirically valid measurements, but we didn't think that those problems were solvable," he says.

Mr Hunt also believes agricultural science should be called something like "agricultural general observations and heuristics", given that science involves measuring things but in agriculture this still isn't being done in most parts of the world.

Another revelation that stuck with him came when he was in southern Africa and noticed that people do not recognise weeds as unwanted plants that have to be eradicated.

"They called them 'pioneer species soil reclaimers' that were indicative of the underlying health problems in the soil. In other words, there was something that told the farmers there was a problem with the local ecology," he says.

In short, weeds contain information, if only people know how to look for it and what to do with it.

AGRITECH ENTREPRENEUR

Another major turning point for Mr Hunt came in 2013. On his 30th birthday, his brother recommended that he attend the SingularityU Executive Program, and it was there, at the Silicon Valley think-tank, that he put on Google Glass for the first time. He was struck by the potential for integration of imaging sensors to provide information related to agriculture.

In mid 2014, the Hunt brothers left the family business and co-founded Cainthus with Robin Johnston, a Canadian with a rare set of skills -- extensive knowledge of cows, crops and animal nutrition along with PhD-level computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) expertise.

Based in Dublin, Ottawa and San Francisco, Cainthus is dedicated to digitising agricultural practices by "turning visual information into actionable data" to reduce inefficiencies in food production and facilitate more environmentally sustainable agronomy practice.

Cainthus technology allows users to obtain health data of livestock as well as crops through predictive imagining analysis, allowing farmers to make better decisions and able to solve problems before they occur. The ultimate goal is to develop the technology to be able to apply it on a global scale while making it affordable for all farmers.

"This will be a major global opportunity as we know that the biggest problems in agriculture are principally caused by the lack of measurement," says Mr Hunt. "We try to apply digital measurement so we can have real-time feedback loops about what's going on in our agricultural processes."

By way of example, he explains what the renowned cow facial recognition can do.

Using a closed-circuit television system in a dairy barn, the technology is able to recognise and track each individual cow, collect data and break down the actions of every single animal second by second on a daily basis.

About 2,000 data points per animal per day are then be interpreted by an AI system that alert the farmer when there is any sign of a problem with the animal's health, behaviour or other factors.

Currently, the system enables a farmer to manage up to 80 cows to a high standard, but Mr Hunt says his ambition is to cover 1 million cows within two and a half years.

Earlier this year, Cainthus received an undisclosed equity investment from Cargill, one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States. The agribusiness giant has thousands of dairy cattle raisers among its customers worldwide and has been developing its own Dairy Enteligen data collection, management and analysis platform to modernise the industry.

The two companies intend to first focus on the global dairy segment, but will expand to other species, including swine, poultry and aquatic animals over the next few months.

"We started with cows because they make the most money in the livestock industry. In the US, an average cow makes $600 gross profit. In Ireland, it's 750 euros ($870)," says Mr Hunt.

In addition, he says, dairy is one of the most sustainable sources of animal protein, so every further efficiency gain that can be achieved, the more environmentally friendly and sustainable it becomes.

"We are only just beginning to really apply technology to dairy and all these principles are applicable to other livestock species," he adds.

In the field of crops, Cainthus software analyses weather conditions and their impact on growth rates, general plant health, stressor identification, biomass quantification, fruit ripeness, and crop maturity, to name a few.

Mr Hunt is highly optimistic about the affordability of the technology as the cost of imaging sensors, processors and software has fallen dramatically in the past few years and it will eventually become cheap enough for farmers of all sizes to utilise.

When the dairy barn system was first designed, he says, the first cameras the company installed cost $750 each and the first server cost $20,000. In a few years, the price of the camera was down to $70 and the server is $5,000.

"This is exponential technology. While the farmers can't afford our technology this year, they can probably afford it next year," he says.

Mr Hunt adds that his system is inverting traditional farming practices. Farmers typically follow what they learned in college or what their parents taught them to do, which basically involves making animals adapt to what humans want.

"But the most important thing in dairy farming is not the farmers. It's the cows that make the money. So rather than having the animals reacting to the actions of the farmer, the farmer will now be reacting to the actions of the animal," he says.

In fact, he adds, the less time humans spend in barns, the better for the animals as they still see humans as predators.

'MAKE YOUR HEART SING'

When he's not busy with Cainthus, Mr Hunt sits on the Exponential Advisory Board of Singularity University and spends his recreational time reading and enjoying outdoor sports. He is also a qualified ski instructor and an avid rugby player. His weakness is sci-fi strategy games.

"I love computer games so much that I can't really play them because I'll just get addicted," he says, laughing.

He also admits he does not have a great work-life balance but this was a lifestyle decision he made a long time ago.

"With modern business the way it is, I'm not completely convinced that work-life balance is actually possible, so I decided to pursue something that I really like so it doesn't really feel like work," he explains.

Referring to signature phrase in The Green Platform Book by the Irish motivational speaker Declan Coyle, Mr Hunt says we should do things that "make our hearts sing".

"Agriculture, the outdoors and technology -- those are the things that make my heart sing," he says. "Even if I work very hard and I don't have many free hours in the day, that's irrelevant because everything I do makes me happy.

"If you do something that you love doing every day, you don't feel tired at the end of the day, so you're more open to getting up and doing other things. I love farms and I love farmers."