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Meet the young entrepreneur at the helm of Halter, the NZ agritech company backed by Peter Beck, Data Collective and Peter Thiel

A young man from Morrinsville is making waves in the agritech world with the award-winning idea behind his company, Halter. The solar-powered, GPS-tracked collar self-herds cows while gathering data about their behaviour, emotions and health and sending it to the farmer’s phone. It recently just raised US$8 million in capital in Silicon Valley from Data Collective, which was the largest investor in the funding round, as well as Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, while Rocketlab’s Peter Beck has dubbed it a ‘billion-dollar idea’. Could this be the future of farming?

Fenceless farming, safeguarding our waterways and freeing up to three hours of farmers’ time per day via technology is the sales pitch behind Halter. And if its investors are anything to by, it’s a pretty good sales pitch at that.

Financial backers of Halter include founder and CEO Craig Piggott’s former boss at Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 fund, Silicon Valley-based Data Collective and the Peter Thiel-led Founders Fund, which has invested in companies such as Facebook, Spotify, SpaceX and Airbnb.

It’s an impressive feat for Piggott, who’s in his twenties and grew up on a 300-cow dairy farm in the Waikato. He was in the midst of a first class honours engineering degree and working at Rocketlab when inspiration struck – why not make a collar that can track cows’ behaviour, emotions and health and herd cows into the right place remotely via sounds and vibration?
 

Piggott says he lived and breathed the agricultural issues Halter is trying to solve growing up on a farm, but it was working at New Zealand’s first rocket company that spurred him into action.

“It wasn’t until I was working at Rocket Lab that I saw all the pieces of how this could work. I thought, ‘If Peter’s able to create an entirely new industry here in New Zealand, the one we’re most known for – dairy and agriculture – needs to change,’” he says.

“I learnt through observation and being part of it, I reported directly to Peter Beck, saw what he did on a day-to-day basis, and it was so motivating. You can’t read it in a book or be taught at university, you have to experience it.”

He began quietly working on Halter as a side hustle at the start of 2016, not letting Beck or his parents in on the secret until he was sure the idea had legs.

When he did eventually come clean to his boss, there were clearly no hard feelings – Beck now sits on Halter’s board, has invested in the company and is acting as a mentor to Piggott.

“Halter is set to redefine an industry and truly modernise farming,” Beck said when Halter closed its Series A funding round in January. “I believe in kiwi companies that have big, billion-dollar potential – Halter is one of those companies.”

Piggott says Beck’s comments don’t add any more additional pressure than he puts on himself for Halter to succeed.

“I have easily the same expectations, if not more. The team’s in the same spot as well – we know how big this could be, and we have a small market risk, so this is a no brainer point-of-view. All the hard work rests with us, how this goes is going to be a direct reflection of the effort and how much work we put into it.”

Halter’s device works by putting a collar on cows that runs on GPS and is solar powered. The collar conditions the cow to respond to audio and vibration cues, eliminating the need for gates. As well as this, an AI component gathers and stores data on each specific cow.

Piggott says this piece of tech – what the company has dubbed ‘cowgorithms’ – means farmers can get deep insights into their stock, such as being able to tell when a cow is sick, hasn’t been eating or has a sore foot.

‘You’re able to care for cows a lot better and also give them a lot more freedom,” he says.

“You get them out when it’s convenient, let them wander and let them do their own thing. It’s not trying to control the cow and take decisions away from them, it’s giving them more freedom.

“This has the potential to really effect your day to day operates. It definitely changes the industry a lot and form the consumer point-of-view, the welfare and sustainability aspect really needs to change. In some essence, we’re giving farmers the tools to farm a lot more efficiently.”

The product was on show at Fieldays last week, where it won a Vodafone Innovation Technology Award.

Piggott says a lot of farmers react in disbelief to the technology, as it’s so new and game-changing, but after they overcome this first hurdle, there’s huge interest.

He says it also benefits farmers in the way that they’re often time poor and working 80 to 100-hour weeks.

“It’s very tough trying to find labour in the industry and what you tend to see is they have to take shortcuts, which are usually at the expense of the environment or the animal. We’re giving farmers up to 2-3 hours a day of time back and also creating ‘fenceless farming’.”

Halter recently closed a funding round in Silicon Valley led by Data Collective, where Piggott demonstrated the technology via livestream by having his farm in Morrinsville floodlit in the wee hours of the morning to shifting the cows around the paddock.

“There’s nothing more tangible than opening your laptop and doing a live demonstration at 4am in Morrinsville,” he says. “It’s ultimate proof of reliability,” although he adds some of the investors enquired where Morrinsville is in the world.

Halter now is currently going into production of its products after a year of testing the technology out on the farm. Piggott says the company is now sitting at around 20 staff, and his focus is on finding more world-class talent to further the company along.

The current challenge is finding the right people, he says, with the team split between Auckland and Morrinsville, so he’s on the hunt for the best engineers and salespeople between the two cities. And once that’s sorted, Halter will be going global.

“We’ve been dead set on being a global company from day dot. If we weren’t thinking about that, then Peter Beck wouldn’t be interested us in all. New Zealand is the best place in the world to be right now as there’s a huge amount of cows here, but there’s also South America, Europe and North America.”

As for New Zealand’s agritech scene, he says while it’s improving, Aotearoa needs to move faster in this space – particularly if it wants to be a world leader.

“The innovation aspect definitely from a capital point-of-view needs to improve, that’s obvious in the sense for why we go overseas for cash – you’ve got the answer there. Is it moving fast enough? I think it needs to move faster. It has to, there’s growing demands from consumers to meet certain standard. I think we’re playing a part in doing that."

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