Forward with NACCE

Disrupting the Agricultural Industry with Voice Recognition Technology, with Matthew Rooda

May 24, 2023 National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship
Forward with NACCE
Disrupting the Agricultural Industry with Voice Recognition Technology, with Matthew Rooda
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Dr. Corbin's talking with Matthew Rooda, an entrepreneur with a passion for agriculture and healthcare. Matthew shares his inspiring journey of developing groundbreaking technology to address the issue of pig mortalities on farms. Through extensive experimentation and problem-solving, Matthew and his team created a voice recognition system and a behavioral tracking wearable that could save newborn piglets from harm. Learn about the challenges faced during the prototyping phase, including recording piglet vocalizations, developing distinguishing algorithms, and finding a reliable adhesive for the wearable device.  Discover how Matthew's background in agriculture, coupled with his experience in healthcare, led him to develop a solution that improves animal welfare, sustainability, and profitability for farmers.

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Becky: Hello, I'm Rebecca Corbin, the host of Forward with NACCE and the CEO of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. And we have a very special guest today in our studio. He is very successful. He is very funny. I've heard. So, Matthew Rooda, welcome to the program. How are you doing this morning?

Matthew: I am doing really good. Thank you for the invitation.

Becky: Well, we're happy to have you here and I know that you have a really interesting, you know, story to tell, so let's just jump right into it and, and why don't you tell us, Matthew, a little bit about your background. You know, where are you living now, where did you grow up? Perhaps some, influences that that led you to doing the work you're doing today.

Matthew: Yeah, so I was born in Kinston, North Carolina and at a young age, we moved to Iowa, spent all my childhood in Iowa. I went to college in Iowa, so attended Hawkeye Community College, then the University of Iowa. Today I am doing a, MBA at Johns Hopkins, and so that's a little bit outside of Iowa, but that's kind of where the story's gone.

My influences growing up. I grew up in a small rural community, and so, my family, my grandparents, as an extension of that and, and just local, local community were most of the influences in my life. but then once I started this business, I really opened up my network to individuals from all over the world.

And I'd have to say that, It would be wrong, I mean, not to say that there's just dozens of influences at this point, that have helped us and helped me get to where I am today.

Becky: Yeah, I think that's great. And I, I think it's funny when. When people, when I talk to people about entrepreneurship, I think naturally people think Silicone Valley, Chicago, even New York or Boston, and some of the work that we've done, actually, Hawkeye Community College has been engaged with NACCE for a number of years.

Our chairman of our board, Steve Schultz, is the president of North Iowa Area Community College. So, lots of good things come from, from the Midwest and some of our experiences are, you know, because if you're in a rural environment, a lot of people that live there might have multiple jobs. They might make things and sell things and drive a school bus and do, you know, various other things.

So, I think, you know, really your history is interesting and it sounds like you are a lifelong learner, that you're, you know, you're pursuing your master's, MBA right now, which is, is fantastic. But let's jump in a little bit to your business. I want you to share with people, what it is, maybe how you got inspired, to start it.

Matthew: Yeah, so I grew up in agriculture and in some ways healthcare as well. And I've worked with pigs my entire life, even managed commercial operations when I was going to college. And I really wanted to solve the problem of pig mortalities. there's a really cool opportunity for welfare and improve sustainability and profitability for farmers as well.

It's really the, probably the greatest opportunity in agriculture it comes with, with that area because you can hit so many things all at once. And our team in 2015 decided that we were actually gonna drop out of college for a semester to pursue an accelerator. They only give us 24 hours to make that decision, but we, we made the decision to drop out for a semester to go and try and create a voice recognition technology that could save little baby pigs from getting rolled on by their mothers. 

Now that sounds pretty crazy, but, and when a mom's giving birth and all of the piglets are trying to, trying to eat, and she rolls, sometimes she'll trap a couple. And so we developed a baby monitor that used voice recognition to look at the waveforms and frequencies of that piglet squeal, and then, a behavioral tracking wearable that could use a, a vibration to alert the mom to sit up and save that piglet's life.

And that was really exciting. Did a lot of great work with Kansas State and other, commercial producers, but ultimately found that after we would save that pig's life, there were other bottlenecks in the processes as that pig aged that would not allow all of the value that we had created to successfully make it to market and to adulthood.

And so what we did is we started to work with producers to identify what those bottlenecks were, and we quickly realized we couldn't identify them because we didn't have the transparency that was necessary into day-to-day process execution. And so we actually tapped into a second bit of my background, which was healthcare.

I was studying to be an obstetrician on the pre-med side, genetics and biotechnology working in nursing homes and hospitals, and I had the opportunity to work with patient management systems like Click point care, where in nursing homes that helps nurses, aids and nurses and doctors provide more consistent high-quality care.

I saw it as an opportunity to take the technology that existed in nursing homes and hospitals and apply it to animal agriculture so that way we could have transparency into our day-to-day processes to ensure high quality care, and hopefully one day make it more possible for precision technologies to come in and provide more autonomous, 24/7 care.

Becky: Wow. That's great. And I, I love how you were really focusing in on problem, definition and identification, and that seems to be a stumbling block for some people that want to be entrepreneurial, but they have an idea for a product, but they're, they haven't really done the deep work to really find out what the problem is and, and try to figure out not only how might one solve it, but how do you define it, and then how do you kind of experiment.

So, so once you got through Matthew, the sort of problem identification stage, you certainly had the passion and you have sort of this crazy quilt network of, of learnings and, and opportunities. How did you experiment, with it to, to make sure that it worked? So, I, I, obviously, you know, have, have been on farms, but I've never worked on one.

Walk us through a little bit about when you had sort of your prototype that you've, that you developed before you went to market. how did you test it? what were some of the kind of fun learnings or funny experiences that you had with it?

Matthew: So that was an, that was a very extensive process that I can break down. and then to kind of touch base on your problem comment, I think in the Midwest, what you learn very quickly is a really strong work ethic, especially when you're in a rural community on a farm. And so I tell people when they're wanting to be an entrepreneur, a lot of people do try to just find a solution or they, they try to think of a solution.

But if you get into an industry, maybe something you enjoy and you passionately pursue excellence in that industry, you are inevitably going to run into problems. And what you'll find is those problems are al also not likely just problems you're facing. And so now you found the problem and then you just gotta figure out, is this a billion-dollar problem?

Is this a significant problem? And will people pay for it? So if you're not passionately pursuing the problem by going and passionately pursuing excellence in some field, it's gonna be really hard to find that game changing solution. When we started to build this technology, and I wanna focus mainly on the initial solution we created because that's where a lot of this, was, was much more challenging at the very beginning.

We needed to create a voice recognition system, and so we had to go to farms and spend hours recording vocalizations of piglets and so that we could distinguish a piglet. That was getting rolled on by its mother from a piglet that was fighting for food.

Now, normally farms don't like it when you go in there, but because when we got that video or that, not the video, when we got that audio, we were also saving the pigs, it was, it was very good for them. But then we, after we developed that, we had to develop an algorithm that could distinguish the two.

And the second innovation that we had to develop was how do you identify in a farm what piglet is getting laid on. So we needed to use match networking and some volume voting and triangulation. And then we needed to figure out how do you put something on a pig so that you can have a vibration to alert her to stand up.

And we had to test over 60 different adhesives. I spent way more time working with sewing machines and fabrics than I thought I ever would, and even went to Japan and Vietnam to figure out how we could take medical grade adhesive that was safe to put on a pig and, and make that a commercially viable solution. So lots of test patches, is what we call them at the time. 

And then when it came to alerting a mother to stand up so that we could save the piglet, We tried water, we tried some air, tried dropping food. But after a mother gives birth, she's not all that interested in eating all the time. And so, we even tried a tried playing sound, but if you play a sound and, and it startles the room, then more mothers get up than the one you need to get up, and then more piglets can get laid on.

So we ultimately ended up with a vibration and 10 impulse, kinda like you have in the chiropractic centers. So just enough to get them to be like, what the heck is that? Shift the weight and let the piglet run free. But it was probably two years of just going through nonstop testing and had to work with Kansas State University where we did the behavioral trials, even had the opportunity to work with Temple Grandon as an advisor.

I don't know if you know who Temple is, but she's basically a world-renowned expert on animal welfare. That was really cool. And so we were able to, to validate that we could even be less stressful than a person running to save a pig, because when a person runs to save a pig, all the pigs in the room were like, why is this person running? And, and why are, why are they like jumping at, at me to save this piglet? So, the startle response for the room and for the mother also went down as well, stressed. So that was cool. 

And then it was just about recording footage of this in real practice. And we had 4,000 hours of video where we had to trace back every, every really every pig to figure out what has happened and, and were we successful. And ultimately we ended up being successful. But it wasn't for the faint of heart and it was a lot of work.

Becky: Well, I think you do a really great job and kinda walking us through that. And if, like you said, if you don't have that relentless passion to keep, you know, keep going back after you know this fail. It reminds me a lot of, you know, really sort of what's involved in pharmaceuticals. You know, you have failure after failure, after failure. And you have to keep, you have to keep trying. 

Now tell us a little bit about, you know, the financing end. You know, how did you, cuz obviously two years of your life, you know, you're, you're not working at a traditional job. How, how did you do that? Did you get a grant? Did you get some, startup funding? Tell us about how that was financed.

Matthew: So the funding started with, it started at the very beginning when I was studying pre-med. I had an email come across that said, we have $3,000 for a student with a good business idea. And for whatever reason in that moment it was like, I wanna try this. So I contacted some producers, got some of their data, walked into the room, presented the data.

They said, you're the first person to actually present real data on the problem from actual customers. And so that was kind of funny. But they said, we'd love for you to come to this startup fair and compete for the $3,000. And so we go to this event, we have a piece of paper with a drawing. And, a couple pieces of paper with data.

There's like 50 other student businesses and most of them have actual booths. And we were just kind of excited to, to be in the room talking about something. we ended up winning and that was probably the most shocking thing to me, and we then got accepted into a student accelerator where we got a few thousand dollars more to, to help fund the business.

And then when we decided to drop outta school for a semester, it was because an accelerator offered 25,000. Well, that helped us get started, but what helped us really fund all of the research and the testing and get us to a place where we could be a commercial product was student startup business plan competitions.

I had the opportunity to compete in 31 student business plan competitions. The University of Iowa said that if we got accepted into one, they would actually cover the travel cost of attending it. And they were really trying to grow their presence in the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a university. And so we got into 31 and we ended up winning 27 of them and we were awarded a little over a half a million in funding.

And that allowed us to build this business. And what surprised us the most, and me the most as a founder, and I think this is a really important thing for everyone out there, was a company focused on the pig pork industry. I didn't think companies like Microsoft, Under Armor, universities like Princeton or Harvard would really care all that much about optimizing the way we produce pork. And I couldn't have been more wrong.

As we went from university, university or company to company competing in these competitions, people were fascinated that we were looking in a place that most people were not. And so I like to say that I like to tell students or people thinking about ideas just because your idea isn't the, well call it the sexiest thing out there. You're not developing a new vaccine or, or curing cancer. That doesn't mean that people out there aren't going to be super excited and supportive of what you're trying to do. So, that was, it was a lot of fun.

Becky: Yeah, I mean, and I think excitement and passion is contagious. You know, happiness is contagious, so it carries you through. I wanna go back to the beginning though, of your story. So, a mother pig, rolls over on a baby pig, and that's a sad thing for, for a lot of different reasons.

But what, what's the cost to the farmer? If, if, you know, every, every little piglet that gets lost or, you know, doesn't survive, what, what does, what does that mean, to, to a farmer over, over time? Because I'm, I'm curious about like the value proposition of this.

Matthew: So most people do not know what piglet crushing is or, or laying on, right? And that was one of the biggest challenges when we were starting this because about 160 million pigs around the world die from that every year. And it happens in pasture pork, it happens in pen pork, or it happens in, it really no matter where you race pigs, no matter how you race pigs, the biggest challenge for producers is piglet crushing and the more freedom that that mother has while giving birth the higher the, the prevalence of piglet crushing. 

And so as our industry is continually bringing more space to that process, it continues to become a bigger problem. But because most people had no clue what this was, we would go into presentations and you could kind of see people were excited and interested, but they didn't know quite what to expect.

So we found this, this video online actually, where a mother is walking in this, this pasture and she kind of flops on her little piglet. And the piglet looks out from under the mother and it is squealing for its life. It, it's a very tragic video, and after about four or five seconds when you hear that rhythmatic squeal of like basically help, help, help, it squeezes out and kind of walks it off.

And so what it did for us was when I was giving a presentation, I could walk in and I can acknowledge the fact that most people do not know that this is a problem. And then we basically told them, we're gonna show you what it looks like. And people walked into that video thinking that we were going to do an unacceptable thing by showing them a video of a piglet that was going to actually die.

But in reality, what we showed them was a really heartwarming experience of, of a piglet getting out and everyone in the room went from fear to an elation and people would laugh and clap. They were so excited to see that the piglet made it. And for us as we presented our story and what we were trying to do, that the impact that that had on individuals, it's lasting. 

Anyone who's watched us pitch in the last 80 years or present what we're doing, they all remember that moment. And I think it's so important that people not only know the financial impact, which is billions of dollars to our industry, but also what is, what is the impact to the person working in the farms or the people who own the pigs and raise the pigs for a living when something like that happens. It's, it's, it's deeper than finances, it's, it's, it's emotional. And connecting on that level was really helpful for us.

Becky: It sounds like it's a, like a, almost like a socially responsible thing, like if you're raising, anything you wanna do it in a responsible way. We actually we were at MIT I think last year and we were doing, a sharing session where we had Fox Valley Community college, shared a little bit about, some milk and milk production if, if cows sleep on mattresses that are probably more expensive even than the mattresses that we sleep on, that you have happy cows and, and you give them sort of this sort of lifestyle.

There's the humanity of, of treating, you know, animals well and, and, and people that care for them well, but also, it makes good business sense. So I, I think that is wonderful and I'm, I'm glad you used a very, you know, heartwarming and uplifting message versus, you know, doom and scaring people.

Matthew, as our time winds down. I, I've enjoyed, hearing your story and maybe you wanna just end and, and share with us a little bit about, what you might suggest to others who are listening and think, oh, I have, you know, they might have an idea or a passion that they wanna pursue. What would you recommend to them that they, that they do first? maybe the first few, steps.

Matthew: So I think the first few steps that you need to do outside of passionately pursuing the problem to figure out what a needed solution might need to be, is before you even have a solution, figure out how you tell the story. And when you start with that story, it's where, where are we now? Where are we going? What is it gonna look like if this problem continues to persist? Like, how bad can this get, right? 

You're telling that doom and gloom story of this is the problem and understanding it to its absolute fullest, which means being able to forecast what happens if the problem persists, and then figure out if you can come along and you can provide value, what can that ultimately end up doing for the end, end user or consumer?

A lot of time people come up with a really good idea, but they can't explain it in a way that is smooth and concise and impactful, and I think you, in many instances, only get one opportunity to go in front of a group of individuals and get that chance.

And it's so important that before you hop into those moments, you really work on how you communicate in 90 seconds, but mainly five or six minutes, what does this need to look like? And there's plenty of individuals out there, probably within your community. Many of the universities, community colleges have individuals that would gladly probably listen to your presentations.

I know I'd be happy to if people reached out. There's plenty of people out there to help you so that way you don't get the, the cart ahead of the horse, so to say. And you're prepared to communicate how impactful your idea and business could be. it, it all starts with the idea, unapologetically speak about your idea as if it exists, don't lie, but really get yourself to live in that reality of if it exists, what do things look like?

And talk about it as such. You need to passionately believe the future you're seeing because nobody else sees what you see. And if you can't clearly articulate it, nobody's gonna clearly understand it.

Becky: Oh my gosh, that is so powerful. And I agree with you about language, you know, when even if people can make little pivots, instead of saying, well, if I ever, you know, when we, or, you know, using something like how might we. 

So, oh my gosh, Matthew, thank you so much for, for being with us today. There's, there's so much, I learned from you and, I just congratulate you on pursuing your dream. I mean, this is, this is incredible and I know there have been many people that have helped you along the way and you've got a great support system. But the fact that you're, you know, wanting to give back to others and, and see others, really, you know, survive and thrive is, is amazing. So thank you.

Matthew: No thank you.