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B.J. Brugman, co-founder and CEO of Distynct, will share his story through conversation with Eric Engelmann, Iowa Startup Accelerator’s general partner, including the challenges, successes and plans to scale the business in Iowa in next week’s Founder Fireside discussion.
B.J. Brugman’s company intends to make livestock production more efficient in ways even he’s not thought of yet.
“As we bring connectivity to these farms, we’re really the enabler of precision agriculture,” Brugman, co-founder and CEO of the Ames-based company that enables remote monitoring of livestock, told The Gazette ahead of his April 20 presentation.
“Some of those things we can’t even dream of yet. We kind of view ourselves as the foundation of precision livestock farming.”
Brugman, 32, who grew up in Royal in northwest Iowa’s Clay County, went to work for Elanco, a pharmaceutical company that supplies medicines and vaccinations for pets and livestock. Managing sales to swine and beef producers in North Carolina and then in Idaho, he noted ways technology could make them more efficient.
”The customers I was working with as part of the swine business gave exposure to an obvious gap,” Brugman said. That was “being able to remotely answer some questions in the barn in real time.”
But while developing the first product for what would become Distynct, Brugman found a major hurdle remained — and still remains, for many production facilities.
“We were using A.I. (artificial intelligence) and computer vision to count pigs,” he said. “We thought that was the best thing in the world, so we took it out and discovered the barn didn’t have internet.”
So bringing the internet into the barn became first priority for Distynct, launched in mid-2020.
“We’re taking the burden of sourcing connectivity off the plate of the producer,” Brugman said. “Our gateway is standalone internet access.”
Once that’s accomplished, customers may select a suite of software linking sensors that track several factors — temperature, water supply, and the contents of manure pits and feed bins — with a cloud-based digital dashboard allowing real-time monitoring.
“These are questions the industry haven’t been able to ask before,” Brugman said. “What can you learn by measuring water in real time? You can learn a lot.”
System sensors are off-the-shelf components, a key feature for Distynct’s approach.
“Our gateway those sensors plug into is completely hardware-agnostic,” Brugman said. “It doesn’t have to be our device.”
Motion sensors and devices attached to doors and lights enable producers to monitor their barns for potential intruders or loss of power. Others track feed use and manure production so chores can be scheduled before problems become acute.
While most feeding operations now have basic alarm systems, they’re most often linked via land lines or through 3G wireless, which is becoming obsolete.
“An internet-based alarm system that allows you some visibility at the barn, we think there’s a good opportunity for us to upgrade some of those systems that were based on older technology,” Brugman said.
Distynct and its customers still are learning the system’s potential as they gain experience with it.
“Our first sensor on the feed bin was answering the basic question, is there feed there at all?” Brugman said. “Then you start to think about optimizing: ‘Now I want to know if I’m about to run out of feed, so I don’t have to place an order on the weekend.’”
Starting a new company “right about the time the world was ending” went “OK,” Brugman recalled. “We were trying to really get an understanding of the producer needs. Doing those (meetings) over Zoom, that was fine. It didn’t have much real impact on our progress.”
Distynct now counts seven full-time employees, five at its Ames headquarters. While its system has potential for poultry, dairy and cattle operations, its current focus remains on the swine industry.
“My network is there, so we’re focusing there,” Brugman said.
“The only way to do this now is to call the local telephone (carrier) and see if they can plow a line to your facility,” he said. “The value proposition to the company is really low. We’ve tried to accelerate that.
“We can make the economics work where the local telephone company probably can’t, without some assistance from the government.”
What: B.J. Brugman, co-founder and CEO of Distynct, will talk with Eric Engelmann, Iowa Startup Accelerator’s general partner, at the next 1 Million Cups Founder Fireside
Where: Olympic South Side Theater, 1202 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids.
When: Doors open at 8:30 a.m., with the program beginning at 9 a.m., Wednesday, April 20
Registration: Admission is free, but registration is required at https://bit.ly/3O5mM6Y