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Tracking the well-being and behaviour of farm livestock is essential for farmers, impacting everything from overall herd health to farm profitability. The founders of ProTag set out on a mission to develop the world’s most advanced cattle-monitoring ear tag so they partnered with Blender to help them.

When Massey PhD engineering students Baden Parr and Tyrel Glass began developing ProTag – a high-tech ear tag designed for continuous monitoring of health, location, heat cycles, and behaviour of cattle – they knew it could be a game changer for New Zealand farmers. But integrating huge amounts of technology into a tiny, low-cost device that clips comfortably onto a cow’s ear was far from straightforward. By partnering with the design and development experts at Blender, the ProTag team are now in the final stages of taking their innovative idea from unpolished prototype to market-ready product.  

Good things come in small packages.

The idea for ProTag was sparked by a real-world challenge posed by a couple of local farmers who reached out to Massey University where Baden and Tyrel were studying their engineering doctorates. The farmers wanted to see if it was possible to create a low-cost ear tag for livestock that could provide virtual fencing capabilities as well as monitoring health insights.

Although low-cost smart ear tags have been available for some time, they are primarily designed for reproductive cycle monitoring. At the other end of the spectrum are solar-powered GPS-enabled collars that offer health insights as well as virtual fencing capabilities. However, these come with a hefty price tag.

“We saw a gap in the middle,” says Baden. “We recognised the value of location as a data stream but realised there were a lot of technical hurdles involved with being able to utilise that in a small ear tag device as opposed to a large collar where you could integrate solar panels and big batteries.”

To overcome those challenges, Baden and Tyrel knew they’d need substantial investment, specialised expertise, and additional resources.

Gaining ground.

In 2021, Baden and Tyrel entered their idea into the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition, beating thousands of challengers from around the globe to win the Earth category. Soon after, they gained acceptance into the Sprout Agritech Accelerator programme which led to them raising $1 million in conditional investment. 

“Up until that point we’d just been making prototypes in the garage,” says Baden. “Our next goal was to deliver proof of concept to our investors.”

Baden says that during that period, the scope and focus of the business and product changed quite a bit from the initial idea. “When the farmers originally reached out to us, they proposed an idea that was very much around virtual fencing in a low-cost ear tag. We quickly came to the conclusion that it would be very complicated,” says Baden.

“So we moved away from virtual fencing as a goal and focused on how we could provide useful health insights to farmers by combining behaviour monitoring with continuous location of the animal to add context.  “It was a good point of difference in the market and would substantially improve the insights that farmers had access to.”

With funding secured and prototypes underway, Baden and Tyrel turned to Blender to help with the daunting task of transforming their theoretical knowledge into a viable, market-ready product.

It really was an easy decision to work with Blender and the expertise and capabilities of their team.The alternative was that we’d have to hire multiple specialist individuals and build our own in house team for something that isn’t a core business activity in the long term.

Stay focused and fail fast.

Blender’s experience in turning complex ideas into user-friendly products made them the ideal partner for ProTag. “We were both qualified as electrical engineers and software developers, but product development – transforming a viable idea into a viable product – was not something we had any idea about!”

Blender was able to bridge that gap with a roadmap of what needed to be done first and what costs would be involved. And with investors keen to start seeing prototypes being tested, that was a crucial first step in providing the confidence that ProTag could deliver a market-ready product. Like many product development journeys, the ProTag project was complex involving testing various hypotheses, iterating designs, and further prototyping, all of which required meticulous attention and coordination. With so many small processes to juggle, Blender’s project management experience became vital. “As an engineer, every shiny thing is exciting and distracting. So being able to lean on Blender’s expertise quite heavily was hugely beneficial,” says Baden. “Ollie and his team kept their eye on the ball, ensuring the bigger vision was always at the forefront.”

With investor funds on the line, Blender and ProTag needed to not only move quickly but to do so effectively and efficiently. This meant being mindful to avoid time spent on unproductive or unnecessarily repetitive tasks. Blender’s methodology of ‘failing fast’ was a key strategy in this phase. Blender’s lead engineer, Greg Storey explains that failing fast is all about testing assumptions and ideas as quickly and cheaply as possible, before investing too much time, or money into developing them. “For example, with the prototyping stage, we would replicate the weight of all the electronic components inside the prototype without having to actually make it. We’d then test it on the cow and quickly learn that it’s too heavy and we need to reduce it. We could then easily change our design without it being time or cost-intensive,” he says. 

Build up from a minimum.

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) was critical in the development of ProTag, guiding the team to focus on creating a product that could enter the market with essential features while allowing for real-world testing and enhancements. Greg explains that with a device like ProTag, it’s important to have a clear vision and have this nailed down right at the start. “It’s easy for the client to start wanting to add functions, but if there’s no justification for it, that can be very disruptive to the project. It’s important that we keep the ship steering on course.”

Baden explains that marrying the concepts of an MVP with the wider vision is a complex balance. “You’re trying to build a business case for this wider vision while also trying to identify what the MVP is, the small slice of that wider vision that’s important to focus on now. You’ve got a lot of different priorities flying around which creates a lot of tension.

“But Blender helped us realise that the MVP isn’t about perfection,” says Baden. “It’s about what is the first thing I can put in the customer’s hand that they feel is worth the money.” This approach not only accelerated the product’s time to market but also ensured that ProTag could start gathering valuable user feedback early, setting the stage for future iterations and improvements based on real-world usage.

Tracking well toward a bright future.

With trial farms across the country now putting hundreds of ProTag devices through their paces, Baden says the team is very optimistic about the future. “We’ve already gained a lot of learnings from our latest prototype, and we’re excited for a revision coming through later this year. Our intention is to have the market-ready product in customers’ hands this time next year.

ProTag and Blender’s combined efforts are setting new standards in livestock management, demonstrating the power of thoughtful design and strategic partnerships.  “It really was an easy decision to work with Blender and the expertise and capabilities of their team,” says Baden. “The alternative was that we’d have to hire multiple specialist individuals and build our own in house team for something that isn’t a core business activity in the long term.”

“Not only that, but the Blender team are just really lovely people to work with. You walk in and you feel like you’re part of the family. And they’re reliable – when they say they’re going to get something done, you can count on them to be there.”

Got a big idea?

From ideation to investment, prototyping to production, Blender is your expert partner in product development. If you’ve got a great idea that you’d love to take to market, reach out to Blender today and let’s make it happen.