Let’s do launch: SomaDetect’s Bethany Desphande

Let’s do launch: SomaDetect’s Bethany Desphande

CEO and co-founder of SomaDetect, an agricultural technology company that provides dairy farmers with data on milk quality and animal health

Hometown: Guelph, Ontario
Alma mater: York University (BA, math, environmental science); Laval University (Master & PhD, biology)
Headquarters: Fredericton, N.B.
Founded: 2016
Employees: 26

What does SomaDetect do?
The SomaDetect system collects data from milk using an in-line optical sensor that fits into the existing milking equipment on dairy farms. The data is analysed using artificial intelligence and presented on visualization software, giving farmers detailed information on the milk quality and health of each cow.

Moment of discovery
“My father is a light-scattering expert and a biophysicist, and he accidentally discovered that he could measure somatic cell counts in raw milk.” Deshpande started working with her father and two co-founders to determine how the technology could help dairy farmers improve how they monitor milk quality and manage animal health.

How did you know you were on to something?
“We realized that not only could we measure somatic cell count but we could detect a whole range of things that were enormously valuable for farmers. [That] made it not just an interesting or nice-to-have technology but a need-to-have-technology.”

Taking root and gaining traction
SomaDetect has been good at attracting support and investment through a mix of grants, programs and venture capital. It closed a $2.6 million seed round in 2019 and is currently raising a Series A funding round. The turning point for the company came in 2017 when it won top prize at the 43North startup pitch competition in Buffalo, New York. “We were selected the grand prize winners, and so we won a million dollars.” Along with the cash came lots of publicity and an opportunity to set up an office in Buffalo, near one of the top dairy-producing regions in the United States.

“Big wins” to fuel future growth
In January 2020, the company received $3.9 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada for a clean technology project, which Deshpande describes as “a big win for our business and what we’re doing.” A month later, the company announced a new partnership with the largest herd management software provider in the dairy industry, Valley Agricultural Software. About 65 per cent of all dairy cows in North America are tracked using that software, which will be integrated into SomaDetect’s data system. “So that was a huge deal for our company. It positions us really well.”

What’s the potential here?
“It’s a global opportunity. There are dairy cows all over the world and farmers who are trying to make the best food that they can, so that’s a pretty significant opportunity for a company like ours. I think in the next year our company will double in size.”

Biggest risk with this venture
“As a founder, all of your personal finances are completely tied up in the business. You’re as liable as it gets, which can be really scary sometimes.”

What’s the best advice you received as a startup?
“To look for the ‘No’. Find the reason why people would say, ‘No’ to this, not just, ‘Yes.’ It’s just great advice. People aren’t always forthcoming with ‘N o’ direct to your face. Sometimes, you have to ask for that.”

Biggest lessons learned
“Running a business takes your whole self. There are late nights. There are long days of travel. There are meetings and days and weeks where you have to be so incredibly focused and just be ‘on’ the entire time. It can really be tough sometimes, and it’s something that I didn’t think would be demanded of me either. It’s not like any other job. I have cried and bled and sweated for this company and for the people who work here.”

Top tip for aspiring founders
To Deshpande, nothing beats talking to customers and asking questions. “Find the nos and find the yeses to help you build something that’s truly valuable for the people you want to help.” •

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