Startup Stories: FarrPro CEO Amos Peterson on saving baby pigs

Grinnell Mutual Insurance at Iowa AgriTech Accelerator (From left) Amos Petersen meets with Kurt Eaves of Grinnell Mutual during the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator in 2017. Eaves is a mentor to the AgriTech Accelerator.

A problem solver who grew up on a Southeast Iowa farm started a company that could save piglets lives and farmers dollars.

FarrPro is an Iowa City-based AgTech company that creates efficient and effective piglet heating solutions.

Amos Peterson is a co-founder and the CEO of FarrPro. He joined Mike Colwell of the Greater Des Moines Partnership on Wednesday as the March guest for “Startup Stories.”

Startup Stories happens once a month at the Greater Des Moines Partnership building in downtown Des Moines.

Colwell and Peterson talked for nearly 40 minutes about going through the AgriTech Accelerator, what he gained from it and solving a problem in agriculture that hasn’t been solved in over 100 years.

Their Q&A is below and edited for consciousness:

How big of a problem is this?

AP: I just saw a number of like 24 percent of all hogs don’t make it out. It’s pretty huge when you look at $40 for a market hog, multiply that by how many hogs are lost and it’s over half a billion dollars a year.

Did you instantly know what you wanted to do to solve this problem?

AP: I read like 80 studies, I read everything I could. Luckily Iowa State University has a great Animal Engineering department and I just combed through all the material I could get. It all pointed to this inefficient supplemental heating problem. You look at what is out there and it’s pretty arcane, I mean the technology they are using is 140 years old. It’s an inefficient lightbulb.

It seemed like it could use a bit of updating.

And those lightbulbs tend to burn buildings down?

AP: Yeah millions of dollars a year in property damage and livestock lost.

Talking about the company, when did you start FarrPro?

AP: A man in West Des Moines named Jim Eiler who does a little bit of angel investing. He was on the Iowa Economic Development Authority panel that reviewed our application for Proof of Commercial Relevance.

The first time we were denied and that ended up being a good thing. We got a lot of help from people who wanted to see us succeed, Jim included. He referred us to the inaugural cohort of the accelerator.

Talk about that experience in the accelerator

AP: It was intense, like mentor speed dating. I had never really pitched—a company—before so that first day I was stepping all over myself, I wish I had that to do over with. But by day two I had already met like 10 mentors. It was one person every half hour.

I just feel bad for the people I dated on that first day.

What types of connections did you make in the Accelerator?

AP: I had almost no connections to the industry. Chris, my co-founder, was my first connection. He lives in Washington, Iowa which is the number two pork producing county in the state. He was already on board but some of the mentors we met were not related to the pork production industry.

Like Grinnell Mutual, for instance, an insurance company. And I tried to find something in common with all the mentors so I did some research and started with a few questions that I could link back to animal agriculture.

But with the people from Grinnell, it was more about culture fit. They have a very good culture and as I’m learning to be a CEO I wanted to make that a part of my company.

Along the way, you lost a partner?

AP: Yeah a couple of them. It was pretty intense. Our C.O.O and him and his father were my first two partners. I was trying to be the C.T.O I didn’t really want to be out front. But they just didn’t have the time or resources to dedicate.

So you stepped into the CEO role, what do you remember about that process?

AP: I was very reluctant. The process is still ongoing you know what I mean? You have to build a company because it’s not just you, it’s your cofounders and investors. You have to supplement your desire to stand in a lab and draw on a whiteboard.

If you think about being a creative person, creating a company is an act of creation. You can transfer a bit of that impulse to being the CEO but it’s a different plane.

After the 100-day program at the Accelerator, where was the company?

AP: We established our company. With that small investment the Accelerator had made we were able to start looking at building our first pilot units and getting legal in place and IP.

We went from a napkin sketch with a good idea to having a product that looks a lot like the one we are doing right now. And just the contacts to build the production products.

Talk about your product, what does it do?

AP: It’s called “Haven” sort of like an incubator for piglets. It keeps them safe, warm and happy during the first few days of life which are the most traumatic, stressful and dangerous. It also will hopefully within a future iteration track behavior and monitor the health of the piglets.

What type of technology are you using?

AP: We are still using heating elements but we are using the geometry of the reflector. Because with the light bulb, you get a very hot spot in the center and a cold spot on the outside, so only about 20 percent is useful by the piglets.

It can get up to 180 degrees, which is actually the cooking temperature of pork. And they are on the outside, if the stay there and get chilled and can often die.

Or they go back to the mother and she’s not in a position to really do much about avoiding them so when she lays down she can actually crush them.

Our product is what is called a microclimate, where we separate the ambient environment from the local environment for the piglet and hopefully make that a happier place in general. Raise happier pigs, that become healthier pigs that produce more profit and give better lives to the animals.

What are the barriers in the market, is your product easy to retrofit?

AP: Retrofitting…our product is designed to not need to be retrofitted. It uses the infrastructure that is there already, like the divider wall between two crates and the same footprint as a heat map.

So it’s just a matter of putting it on the wall, clamping it down, plug it in where the lamp would go and plugging the heat map into that so the controller can control the heat from both sources. Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to install.

Have you ever built a product before and brought it to market?

AP: I have not brought a hardware product to market, I’ve developed some products but never brought one to market.

The market is very saturated, so a farrowing room might have 48 crates and our product goes over two crates, so we’d put 24 units in. The average sow barn might be several thousand sows and they are spread around the Midwest. Iowa has a lot of the production, but for the Demonstration pilot, we are going to do between 120-200 units.

When do you expect to be in production?

AP: Hopefully later this year. We are going to take what we learn from the demonstration pilot, make our production run and call that our beta. Then be producing a couple thousand units before the end of the year for sale.

How has it been raising capital?

AP: I don’t like fundraising at all, it’s probably the least favorite part of running the company. But I feel the responsibility of those investments very intensely. An investor is a business partner.

We’ve taken a convertible note, it was great.

I allowed myself five minutes to celebrate, poured a little scotch, then it was like how do we do the rest?

Previous Startup Stories Coverage

Powerpollen: An AgTech startup turning a problem into a solution – Jan. 22, 2018

Startup Stories: Buying and selling land through Terva.Ag – Nov. 21, 2017