Agriculture production and farming are some of the most important sectors of Uruguay’s economy, a country with 3 million people and four times as many cows (PhysOrg, 2014). Products derived from cattle and sheep represent the country’s primary exports (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)) at over 20 percent annually (Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Massachusetts Institute for Technology, 2013).
A massive Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak threatened this lifeline in 2001, significantly damaging the country’s livestock sector, causing losses of US $730 million and reducing exports by 40 percent (World Bank, 2005; and Huffington Post, 2015). A viral disease, FMD affects animals such as cows, sheep, and goats (according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)) and can severely threaten a country’s economy (according to the OIE and Presentation for the Temporary Committee on Foot and Mouth Disease of the European Parliament, 2002).
Seeing this extensive damage, a young Ms. Victoria Alonsopérez came up with an idea for a system that would remotely monitor the behavior of cattle to help prevent a repeat of the 2001 outbreak. Over a decade later, Ms. Alonsopérez put her inspiration to practice and developed Chipsafer, a GPS-based method that remotely relays vital information about each animal to farmers. Although still in the development phase, Ms. Alonsopérez has used the intellectual property (IP) system to attract investment, further her R&D, and move closer to commercialization, which could provide farmers with information to help in the prevention of FMD outbreaks and other diseases.
Initially, Ms. Alonsopérez did not spend much time on her idea. “At the time I was 12 years old, so I did not give it much thought,” she explained in an interview with the WIPO Japan Office (WJO). Eleven years later she learned about the Young Innovators Competition held by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which reminded her about the 2001 FMD outbreak and her idea.
“I immediately thought about that problem, and knowing how important farming is for Uruguay and the region, I designed Chipsafer, sent it to the competition, and won,” she said.
Victoria was concurrently working as a teaching associate at the International Space University and had the opportunity to work at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. “I was around NASA people with 25 years of experience in aerospace engineering and they were giving me advice on how to improve my project,” she said. This innovative environment proved to be influential in the perfection of Chipsafer and help her win the ITU competition.
Thinking about potential uses for Chipsafer, Ms. Alonsopérez founded a startup – IEETech (which stands for Innovative Efficient Engineering Technologies) – with the aim of further developing the technology and bringing it to the market. This turned out to be harder than she expected and is an example of the challenges that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face. “I had no idea about anything so I had to start from zero. It was a really slow process,” she said. “We outsourced manufacturing to lower the cost and it turned out to be a nightmare. We had a lot of problems that significantly delayed our progress.”
Following these challenges, Victoria was determined to take her time to develop an effective product before committing to an exact delivery date. As she said, “Farming industries are really hard to get into, and it is more important to deliver a product that is good, test it with farmers, and build a relationship of trust instead of rushing to the market.”
“It works very basically,” Victoria told the WJO when describing her invention. “We put our device on a cow and the GPS information is gathered and transmitted through a cellular network, which we receive and process on our server.”
“Through location we can tell where the animal is at all times. Our device will send a warning message if it trespasses over a specified perimeter or if the device is taken away,” she continued. “If the cow is moving a lot, then it is probably in heat. If it is alone, there probably is something wrong with it because cows like to move in a herd.”
“I’m also working on an algorithm that will be able to tell if the cow has an anomaly, such as an illness, based on its position,” she said. Through this algorithm Victoria hopes to enhance her invention to provide additional information to farmers such as an animal’s temperature, vaccination and food history, and specific areas of movement.
In 2012 and before presenting her invention at the ITU competition, Ms. Alonsopérez decided to file a provisional patent application in Uruguay, Brazil, and the USA, with a full application made in 2013 after winning the competition. Speaking of the value of IP, Victoria said, “I think IP is very important because that is what investors are looking for and how they are going to support you. If you have a technology and have not patented it, it could be at risk of being stolen.”
Ms. Alonsopérez has a clear understanding that for an SME or startup, IP is a vital asset (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2008; and WIPO). “I think that the most important thing for a startup is to have a patented, or patent pending, technology. It generates a lot of value to the startup,” she said. “Especially for small inventors that do not have many resources, IP is very important because you are investing a lot in your technology and if it gets copied it can be of no use at all.”
Victoria has made exceptional use of partnerships through the development and manufacturing of Chipsafer. While they have not always gone according to plan, the inventor remains undeterred. In 2015 she partnered with the University of the Republic in Uruguay and directly with farmers as a way to test Chipsafer further and build relationships of trust, which she believes will help her upon commercialization. “A lot in the farming industry goes through word of mouth, so once one farmer likes Chipsafer they will tell others about it and we will get a lot of traction,” she said.
These partnerships have helped Ms. Alonsopérez build not only the Chipsafer brand, but also her overall brand. “I have worked a lot on developing a brand and image even though I do not yet have a product ready for the market,” she said. “Honesty is the most important thing for your brand, and I’m getting to know farmers and the issues they face first-hand.” This approach has helped ensure that the brand she builds does not center around one product or technology, but herself as an inventor and entrepreneur. Doing so means that future products or services resonate with customers regardless of their name.
Victoria’s company is still young, but her approach to branding and using the IP system may already be paying off. When she made a trademark application for Chipsafer in Uruguay, she learned of another application for “Chipsafe.” While her application is still under examination in the country (as of late 2015), the young business owner is not worried should it be rejected. “I have worked hard on making my name a brand, so even if Chipsafer ends up with a different name it will still have me,” she said. Through creating a strong link between herself as a brand and her technologies, Victoria believes she has increased her chances of attaining her goals.
As Ms. Alonsopérez told the WJO, through her work as the Chair of the Space Generation Advisory Council she encourages the use of IP among women. Although women entrepreneurs are increasing recently (Harvard Business Review, 2013; and Forbes, 2013), there is still a lack of those whom are at the forefront of developing new technologies, with women representing only approximately one-third of entrepreneurs worldwide (Women Entrepreneurship Platform; and World Bank). Some research suggest that much of female entrepreneurship is more about daily sustenance than business (UNU-WIDER, 2010) and other research indicates that there is a significant gap when it comes to technology access between male and female entrepreneurship (Skoll Centre, University of Oxford). If these numbers are to increase, Victoria said that IP awareness and use is crucial for women involved in startups, SMEs, and entrepreneurship.
FMD is not fatal, but can be one of the most economically damaging livestock viruses in the world (Iowa State University, 2011). Livestock lose weight, produce little to no milk, and may succumb to sudden heart failure (FAO, 2012). Maintaining these animals can be costly for farmers and households, and without the daily sustenance and/or income provided by the animals, farmers, households, and entire communities can quickly lose their means of livelihood. Additionally, harvests without livestock to consume them, fields that cannot be plowed, and transport that cannot occur because livestock are too sick are just some of the far-reaching indirect implications a disease like FMD can have on food security.
This is especially true in emerging economy and developing countries, where diminished agricultural production caused by FMD threatens food security at a household level (FAO/OIE, 2012). If successfully commercialized, Chipsafer could slow down the impact of FMD and isolate incidents before they spread, potentially saving livestock from a debilitating disease and millions of people from a significant, detrimental impact to their food security and livelihood.
As of late 2015 Chipsafer has yet to reach the public market, but the invention is sold to interested researchers. According to Victoria, she is focusing on refining it, adding new features, and testing it through her partnerships with the University of the Republic and individual farmers. “I would never go to the market with something that is not exactly as described,” she said. The inventor explained she hopes to have Chipsafer released by 2016, but is not making any promises she feels she cannot keep.
Ms. Alonsopérez wants to make sure her final product meets farmers’ expectations and does not betray the trust they have placed in her brand, the technology, and herself. This trust can help her innovation grow naturally in the farming industry through word of mouth, reducing the need of costly advertising. “Word of mouth among farmers is so important, and I don’t want to lose that,” she said.
While Chipsafer is still in development as of late 2015, it has already won numerous awards. Beyond the ITU competition, IEETech was selected by the Inter-American Development Bank as the Most Innovative Startup of Latin America and the Caribbean 2014; Ms. Alonsopérez was selected as the Innovator of the Year 2014 by the MIT Technology Review Spanish Edition; she was the winner of the 2013 Best young Inventor Award from WIPO; and winner of Chivas Regal - The Venture 2015.
This recognition has earned Victoria and Chipsafer a great deal of attention, which has helped her continue to build her brand. Her patent application has also caught the eye of investors, allowing her to continue to design a more robust product that she hopes to see in the market in the coming years.
Imagine you are shopping for groceries and you see a package with a scannable code. Using your smartphone or other device, you scan this code and a comprehensive list of information is displayed about the origin of the product. If you were purchasing cheese from Uruguay, you could see that it came from a cow that was grass fed, free of FMD or other diseases, and details about the specific farm in which the cow lived.
This is Victoria’s vision for the future use of Chipsafer. “There is a trend now for organic food,” said Victoria, “but how do you know that your food is really organic? Chipsafer is a real information system telling you exactly what you are eating.” Adding value to the product, the entrepreneur believes that it could allow farmers in Uruguay and neighboring countries to command a premium price for their products and expand to new markets. At the same time, consumers could be confident in knowing that the products they are purchasing are safe.
Backed by patent and trademark applications and a strong, evolving brand, Victoria’s technology could potentially bring about these benefits, all while providing an early warning sign for farmers in case their livestock fall ill. This could play an important role in preventing economically damaging disease outbreaks, protect animals and consumers, and potentially contribute to the stability of food security for millions of people.
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Date of publication: December 15, 2015