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Black Box Co helps beef producers use data to drive productivity

Black Box Co co-founders Shannon Speight and Emma Black have developed a web-based app that analyses animal performance metrics across the supply chain. The North Queensland startup is gearing up for Beef Week 2021’s Pitch in the Paddock event, where the duo will go head to head with eight other finalists.

5 min read
Black Box Co co-founders Shannon Speight and Emma Black

Pitch in the Paddock finalist, Black Box Co, is a web-based app with a powerful cloud-based database sitting behind it. The app uses machine learning, predictive algorithms and an expanding database of animal records to crunch the data and display the results on an interactive dashboard.

“It’s fairly intuitive,” said Shannon. “Black Box seamlessly ingests, standardises, validates and analyses data. Users can easily drill down into a subset of animals or a selection of animals to see how they are performing and see how their performance interacted with the rest of the herd. This allows users to quickly look along the whole supply chain; breeding, backgrounding, feed loading and carcass performance of those animals.”

“Innovation in the beef industry is generating more and more data but it’s about getting that data usable so producers can easily make a decision.”

Unlike many cloud-based services, which are designed to interface with particular crush side equipment brands, Black Box Co is completely data agnostic. It takes data from crush side units, but users can also upload data from decade-old Excel spreadsheets.

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Nine finalists, including Black Box Co, will compete at Beef Australia’s 2021 Pitch in the Paddock event, supported by evokeAG., on Wednesday 5 May between 3.00pm and 5.00pm. First held at Beef Australia in 2018, Pitch in the Paddock is a pitching competition for startups, innovators, agritech developers and inventors targeting the beef industry. See the line-up here:

Company led by beef industry veterans

Before co-founding Black Box Co with Emma Black, Shannon was a vet with a background in cattle breeding, fertility and genetics. While working on a genomics project, she saw a lot of data being collected but not utilised on-farm or used in ways that fed into the bigger picture. “[COO and co-founder] Emma Black, noticed the same things and also that some producers were using their carcase feedback, grading – to make decisions that really drive profitability.”

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“Users don’t have to rely on the scribble they have in their Elders notebook,” said Shannon.

With that information easily accessible, producers can make better decisions including identifying animals with desirable traits such as high average daily weight gains and positive pregnancy results for more accurate culling decisions.

Significant savings for beef producers

The app is available on a subscription basis and priced on a sliding scale; $0.40 to $1.50 per breeder so a producer with 1,000 breeders would be up for $1,500 annually. Good value, given that the amount of money Black Box Co customers can save.

“In one company we found $750,000 in discounts not taking into account MSA grading. We were really able to drill down and see where losses occur, e.g., from what property, whether it was bruising, scar tissue removal (which could be from handling or dog bites), meat colouring, fat colouring etc,” said Shannon. “In another, we identified $76,000 of calf loss (positive pregnancies that later returned dry) in four months.”

“Basically, producers can make a good decision based on extensive data without actually having to crunch all that data.”

The journey of a rapidly maturing startup

Since being founded in 2019, Black Box Co has gone from strength to strength. In 2020, it was a successful applicant in the SparkLabs Cultiv8 Accelerator program and in 2021 it picked up an NBN grant from the NBN’s Innovate Grants program. The company has also been the beneficiary of an Australian Government Accelerating Commercialisation grant.

At the end of April, Black Box Co completed an oversubscribed ‘seed’ funding round where it raised another $1.5 million from investors, which included existing customers, agribusiness companies, and high net worth individuals within Australia’s beef sector – further demonstrating its value.

With most of Black Box’s customers in Northern Australia, Shannon said the company will expand its geographical reach in the Australian market. Adding fat lamb breeders to the database and closing the loop on northern cattle production by expanding into the Southeast Asian feedlot market, is next on the agenda.

“SparkLabs Cultiv8 came on as one of our earlier investors and we went through their Accelerator Program, which was fantastic in terms of developing seller skills, and positioning us to be in the high growth space that we’re in. The Australian Government’s Accelerating Commercialisation grant really kick started our development as we were able to internalise our tech team, expand our trials, and really push forward to get to the stage where we can do significant capital raising, expand into the market and increase our lead,” said Shannon.

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Black Box Co has secured production data on over 800,000 animals, as of April 2021, with product trials underway and five key commercial partners across the beef supply chain.

Advice for new agritech startups

When it comes to new agritech startups, Shannon’s advice was succinct. “If you don’t have an ag background, partner with someone who does so you really know your market.”

Shannon has also avidly applied the lessons of Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup. “Get [your product] into the hands of your customer as soon as possible,” said Shannon. “As soon as you think that it is about 80%, not even 80%, push it out there because otherwise there’s the risk you’ll spend too much money and too much time trying to polish something that – maybe – nobody wants.”

“I don’t think anyone would ever say the startup journey is easy, but I think it is probably been a lot harder for some other people. Emma and I are both well connected in the beef industry and really understand the industry’s needs.”

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“Coming in with an agtech product, from an ag background, as opposed to a tech background, it really gave us the advantage of knowing exactly what the customer wants and what the industry needs.”

Contact The Black Box Co team to discuss opportunities here.  

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