Halter, the NZ based maker of a "smart collar" for fence-free dairy farming has raised $32 million in a Series B round led by Australian VC firm Blackbird Ventures - and supported by current shareholders including Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck.
The money will be used to fund expansion in Auckland and Waikato - where the company is now offering commercial deployments early-adopters - and to take staff from 60 to 115.
Halter was the brain child of Rocket Lab mechanical engineer Craig Piggott - who grew up on a dairy farm in Waikato.
The company's system involves a Bluetooth and GPS-enabled collar, which deliver an audio signal into a cow's left ear - or right ear, depending which way you want them to go - to allow virtual herding, controlled by a smartphone app. In theory, the farmer controlling the app can be anywhere - be it a few from the herd, still lying in bed safe from the rain, or even in another country.
The solar-powered collars system, independently reviewed by the Ruakura Animal Ethics committee, can also detect unusual movement - indicating if an animal is lame or on heat.
"At first I worked on Halter as a side-hustle, on weekends and evenings," Piggott said. "When I told Peter, he was super supportive."
The young entrepreneur said he in part got his vision for Halter from his upbring, and in part from working for Rocket Lab. "Being around Peter was inspiring, he showed you can reinvent an entire industry - and in dairy farming there are a lot of problems and a lot of opportunities."
Piggott left Rocket Lab to found the four-person Halter in 2016.
Beck provided mentorship, joined Halter's board and threw in funds for the startup's $8m Series A raise, which was also supported by Icehouse Ventures-owned Ice Angels (which led an early seed round) and Sir Stephen Tindall. Piggot tells the Herald that the existing investors, including Beck, also participated in the Series B round (which is now relative chump-change for the founder, given Rocket Lab is heading toward a $6 billion Nasdaq listing later this year).
A post-money valuation hasn't been given for Halter's latest raise and stakes are no longer public. Like Rocket Lab before it, its registration has been moved to the US. But Piggott said the $32m "definitely did not buy a majority stake."
A commercial launch was originally scheduled for 2020, but Piggott told the Herald that Covid had caused delays. The startup also refined its business model during the lockdowns, deciding it would give the collars free to farmers to limit their capital risk, and instead charge a monthly fee for its software, per cow per month. Halter hasn't published its standard monthly rate, but will quote for different farms. Piggott indicted there was some wiggle-room at this early stage commercial operations. "We want to make sure every farm has a strong return on investment," he said.
There has been a lot of interest from the US. Piggott has demonstrated Halter's system for "Tier 1 Silicon Valley investors," showing how it can be used for drafting (separating one cow from a herd) from 10,000km away. But it's interest from the VC community over the US dairy industry. Piggott says European and South American farms, with their emphasis on free-range, pasture-based farming, have a lot more in common with New Zealand. But there is an organic farming movement in North America that's displaying interest.
For now, however, Halter is 100 per cent consumed by fulfilling its pipeline of customers in the Waikato. After that, it will expand to other areas of NZ before it begins offshore sales.
Search for 55 staff
Piggott's major message right now is: "We're hiring." His company has Auckland and Waikato roles open in areas from business development to field support to supply chain management to marketing (the search for staff puts Halter in good company with Rocket Lab, which is seeking 90 more personnel).
"By the end of the year, we expect to add 115 new jobs across all aspects of our team. We're currently deploying Halter technology on a new farm in the Waikato every couple of weeks, but we're going to increase this," Piggott said.
"Our hiring drive means for the first time Waikato farmers are able to apply to view a live demo of our leading-edge technology in action on farm. We also hope to deploy in other New Zealand regions in the coming months."
Samantha Wong, founder and partner of Blackbird Ventures and new Halter board member, said: "The technical breakthroughs the team has achieved not just on the hardware, but machine-learning and software, are cutting edge. There is huge growth potential for Halter to completely change the industry for the better.
"Blackbird's inaugural New Zealand fund was built to back Aotearoa's 'wild hearts', founders doing their life's work with the ambition to be the best in the world, not just the best in our region. Halter fits that description to a tee. When the opportunity to lead the company's Series B presented itself, we were excited to lean in and make it one of our biggest initial investments to date," Wong said.
As far as export opportunities are concerned, Wong and Piggott are both quick to point out that if Halter helps just half the dairy farmers in the Waikato it will be a billion-dollar company.
"I'm a Waikato dairy boy originally. So, it's a source of pride to empower New Zealand to deliver the best dairy in the world, that's carbon neutral and zero harm. Milk production doesn't have to be counter to the sustainability of our people, animals and land. It's just about how you do it," Piggott said.
Halter was the first in a series of investments for Beck, who went on to back the new $10m Offset Ventures Deep Technology fund, and who last week revealed he had put half a million into a satellite solar panel startup founded by three Auckland students.