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Source: Massey University

Nathaniel Faulkner, Tyrel Glass and Baden Parr founded ProTag, an innovative smart ear tag for livestock.

An agritech startup created by three engineering PhD students from Massey University has been named one of four finalists in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup world championship and will be aiming for the top spot in May.

The Imagine Cup brings together student innovators to tackle social issues with technology and has been run by Microsoft for 19 years. The winners of the competition will receive $75,000USD in prize money and a mentoring session with Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella, among other prizes.

Baden Parr, Tyrel Glass and Nathaniel Faulkner founded ProTag, an innovative smart ear tag for livestock. Their idea beat tens of thousands of challengers from across the Asia Pacific regional finals, before making a world shortlist of 12, and then being named the winner of the Earth category.

They’ll now compete against the winners of the education, healthcare and lifestyle categories which were won by teams from the US, Kenya and Thailand, respectively.

The New Zealand trio are recent graduates of Massey’s Bachelor of Engineering programme, specialising in electronics and computer engineering, which is how they met. They are now all studying towards their doctorates at Massey’s Auckland campus.

Their idea for ProTag came from a meeting with a young farming couple who were seeking help to invent a smart ear tag that could give them insights into their herd’s health.

They liken their product to a Fitbit, an activity tracker which applies detailed machine learning to movement data in order to extract behavioural information. The ear tag detects the movement of an animal and can recognise when it’s grazing, sleeping or running. This information is then sent to the Cloud and used to predict if the animal is developing an illness. Farmers can use these insights to take preventative health measures that reduce vet fees, boost productivity, and increase animal welfare.

Mr Parr says it’s surreal to have made the finals. “We’re proud to be representing New Zealand, it puts us on the map with Microsoft and hopefully we can do everyone proud.”

They cite their experience at Massey’s engineering programme and their supervisor Associate Professor Fakhrul Alam’s approach to learning as major motivation behind getting involved with a competition like this, over and above their study.

“Entering this competition is a reflection of Fakhrul’s mentoring style – he’s thrifty with student expertise,” says Glass. “He’ll connect a group of us who are working on similar projects in a room and says we should learn off each other.”

Faulkner agreed. “He [Dr Alam] has a lot of trust in our abilities, he recognises what we’re good at and lets us get on with it.” 

Dr Alam has been with Massey for more than 15 years and says he has always encouraged his PhD students to extend their skills and interest while studying.

“I want to keep my students engaged and motivated to try new things and be entrepreneurial – I often ask them, ‘why do you want to work for someone else?’”

He says being a student is the time to experiment with taking risks, making mistakes and using those lessons to grow personally and professionally. He is proud the team has made it this far.

“When you see your students competing and winning against the world’s best, it validates what we do here and why we come to work each day. We are producing world-class engineers and that’s what the world needs. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling.”

Learn more about the finalists: https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/student-developer-blog/meet-the-2021-imagine-cup-top-4-teams/ba-p/2247252

MIL OSI