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In Ovo’s automated sexing solution for chicken eggs

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - InOvotive (In Ovo’s automated sexing solution for chicken eggs)

Período documentado: 2021-06-01 hasta 2022-05-31

The global poultry industry has two main goals: the production of poultry meat and the production of eggs. To do this as efficiently as possible, chickens have been specialised by breed. This has resulted in specialised egg laying chickens (layers) and meat producing chickens (broilers). There is one problem with the current egg laying chickens: the global layer industry kills over 6.5 billion day-old male layer-type chickens as only female layers lay eggs. And egg-laying breeds don’t grow big enough to sell for meat.

This problem has been around in the poultry industry for decades but only recently has come under attention of both politics and the consumer. Germany has banned this controversial practice of slaughtering male chicks in from 2022 and other countries are following their lead. In general, not many consumers are aware male chickens are killed for the production of table eggs, which is perceived as a food product that is suitable for vegetarians as well. In addition, animal welfare standards are a big differentiator for eggs in the supermarket. Most people who buy eggs with a high standard, do not expect (or realize) that the day-old male chick issue applies to virtually all commercially produced table eggs. Supermarkets are now catching on to this issue as well and are pressuring their suppliers to come up with solutions. In Germany, for example, multiple retailers have communicated concrete timelines for making the switch to table eggs produced without killing of male chicks. However, at this moment, there are not enough (scalable) solutions that could help drive this switch.

The objective of the InOvotive project is to provide a scalable solution for in-egg sexing of layer chickens at an early stage and with high accuracy. This will provide the poultry industry with a cost-effective solution to a global problem, which makes the production of table eggs more sustainable and animal friendly. During this project, we are further improving our technology, making it faster, more accurate and robust, with the lowest possible impact on the quality of the eggs and hens that hatch from them.
At the start of the project, we developed improvements for the sampling system and integrated the commercial version of the screening module as well as the sample transfer system with the prototype. The upgraded prototype was moved to an independent commercial hatchery in the Netherlands for testing and further validation of the process. We prepared a facility separate from normal hatchery operations for our system and set up large-scale validation tests. To facilitate the processing of large numbers of eggs and to mimic a real-life production environment, the prototype was further expanded. Based on our experiences along the way, several improvements were added. In collaboration with our hatchery partner, we were able to sell a good number of hens that hatched after our validation tests. These hens were first placed at rearing farms, where they were monitored and reared until they reached the egg-laying age. Data from the rearing farms show that there is no difference in chicken quality or the number of table eggs produced compared to hens from regular production.

Using the lessons learned from the validation tests, engineering for the demonstration machine started. This included an improved method for handling the eggs internally in the system as well as a new method for transporting the acquired samples from the egg to the screening module. This new sample transfer method not only assures a higher accuracy, it also removes and intermediate step and reduces the amount of consumables (plastics) needed for the process. The demonstration machine includes a module that automatically sorts eggs after screening and refills incubation trays completely with female and male eggs (backfilling). The demonstration machine has been built and was placed at our partner's hatchery.

Using the full system, we have performed more validation tests and demonstrated it to key industry players. All modules have been tested, and the results have been used to optimize machine parameters and processes. We have validated the KPIs for the entire process. At the end of the project we have a machine that provides a fully automated line, that can handle normal incubation trays, test eggs, and sort the eggs into selected groups of male and female eggs. We have proven that we could scale up our technology and come to a solution that provides a commercially interesting alternative to the current practice of male chick culling. This has been proven by the signing of two contracts with customers two letters of intent for more machines. Thanks to the progress made and the attention in generated, both on a national and international level, we were able to successfully close a €34 million funding round to roll-out the technology, set up an operations netwerk and scale-up the company.
The machine we have developed is the single highest use-case for applying mass spectrometry screening in an industrial setting and is pushing the limits of this technology. Together with the supplier of the screening module, we are improving their system and use it to open up a completely new market for mass spectrometry analyses, which can lead to new applications besides the screening of a biomarker for gender.

Our company is growing rapidly. We have grown the team from nine people to 29 at the end of the project, and we are not stopping here. Team expansion is required for R&D, building and integrating subsystems and preparing operations once the solution hits the market. We have discussed our technology and offering with potential customers who are interested in implementing our solution in their hatchery, and a wide selection of stakeholders for this topic. We have shared the progress with our technology with a selected group of investors, which has led to a new financial injection by venture capitalists and a bank.

Our scalable solution offers a competitive alternative and is particularly interesting compared to the rearing of the day-old male chickens for meat. This practice of rearing the males is currently being applied, but not only is it extremely costly (especially when reasonable welfare standards are taken into account), it has a big detrimental impact on the environment. As layer chickens grow much slower than broilers, it takes more time and more feed, and results in more excretions, to grow the males to a practical slaughter weight. We have demonstrated, together with an independent consultant, that one of our machine prevents the CO2 output of 2,000 Dutch households per year when males are not being raised for meat, which is huge.

During the project, we have worked on making the screening faster and more accurate, but also took steps towards an earlier screening than the current moment of screening on developmental day-9. This is a requirement for certain markets, such as Germany, that won't allow in ovo sexing after day-6 from 2024. Other countries are also working towards legislation that bans the culling of day-old male chickens, but the exact requirements vary per country. It is In Ovo's goal to be able to provide a solution for as many markets as possible, as we want make impact by ending the practice of male culling completely in the poultry industry.
In Ovo Ella sexing machine prototype
In Ovo founders
In Ovo Ella demonstration machine
Girls Only eggs
In Ovo Ella sexing machine conveyor belt