Agtech startup Labby shaping future of dairy industry by tackling testing
Via the Rochester Business Journal
Labby, an Optical Sensing Agtech startup born out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is creating on-farm milk testing technology that will help dairy farmers enhance profitability, improve animal health and welfare, and ensure the highest quality milk for consumers.
The company leverages AI-enabled optical sensing technology to replace antiquated, lab-based dairy testing with a faster, more dependable way to conduct raw milk testing on the farm. Farmers depend on testing to screen milk for composition and quality, and to detect bovine mastitis, a common bacterial infection that affects 250 million cows and costs the dairy industry $32B annually.
We caught up with Julia Somerdin, Labby CEO and co-founder, to better understand the need for faster, more accurate milk testing and how Labby is helping the industry address it with technology farmers can leverage on the farm.
Dairy farmers pressed to produce higher quality milk while ensuring profitability
Dairy farmers’ profitability hinges on their ability to effectively care for and protect their cattle to ensure they produce high-quality milk. A single case of mastitis can lead to reduced milk yields, poorer milk quality, and increased antibiotic use. The infection can easily spread throughout a herd, leading to a shorter shelf life for milk and higher costs for dairy processors. This results in significant milk production losses and waste throughout the dairy supply chain.
Controlling the problem requires early mastitis detection, but current testing techniques are time- and labor-intensive and can only be conducted monthly. Technicians must manually collect milk samples from each cow and transport the samples to labs for testing. Farmers typically wait several days for results, putting the health of their cattle and their farm at risk while they wait.
“Given the global trend towards an ‘instant delivery’ economy and mindset, it’s concerning that the core dairy testing business within the dairy industry remains outdated,” said Somerdin. “The reliance on centralized lab-based testing has severe implications for animal disease management, notably mastitis, causing substantial revenue loss, promoting antibiotic overuse, and leading to food waste.”
Labby leverages optics technology to modernize milk testing
Labby was created in 2017 by Somerdin and Anshuman Das, who met at MIT when Somerdin was pursuing her second master’s degree at MIT System Design & Management, a joint program between Engineering & System Division and MIT Sloan, while Das was a post-doc at MIT Media Lab. Both shared a passion for optics technology and realized they could utilize their technological capabilities to build applications that modernize testing and provide much faster insights into the materials being tested. The dairy industry, lacking real-time milk testing and facing serious consequences because of it, became their focus.
In early 2019, the startup was accepted into the Dairy Farms of America program, which led Labby to its first industrial partner, DairyOne, a dairy testing lab based in Ithaca, NY.
“The program and partnership granted us an in-depth understanding of the dairy industry and allowed us to fine-tune our product approach,” said Somerdin. “We set out to shape the future of the dairy industry by providing farmers with real-time data, aiding in the journey towards a more profitable and sustainable future.”
Labby brings lab testing technology directly to the field, allowing farmers to perform rapid, reliable, and affordable milk testing without the need for a lab. Rather than waiting days for results, the results are available in less than 10-15 seconds, providing instant information on key milk components and cow health indicators, including butterfat, protein, and somatic cell count. Labby’s AI-enabled cloud platform then translates the raw data into meaningful insights on both individual cows and the entire herd, giving farmers fast and precise mastitis detection.
“Our product is not just about instant milk testing — it’s about improving the lives of dairy farmers and veterinarians, and restoring confidence in the dairy industry,” said Somerdin. “We are using technology to empower those who feed our world.”
Driving meaningful change in the dairy industry
Somerdin estimates that around 6 billion people worldwide rely on dairy products, offering a significant market opportunity for Labby’s solution.
“Milk provides abundant biomarkers for animal disease and animal health,” she said. “By unlocking this critical information, Labby can power innovation across the entire dairy ecosystem — from animal health, feed, and nutrients to genetics. We have the potential to redefine how animal health is managed, now and in the future.”
To build its business and speed its time to market, the startup is participating outside of the finalist structure in Luminate NY, an international accelerator program from NextCorps in Downtown Rochester.
“Luminate’s knowledge and resources and their invaluable network have fortified our business and played a critical role in shaping our trajectory,” said Somerdin. “With Rochester being the epicenter of U.S. optics, we’re eager to harness the wealth of expertise in this region as we grow.”
“Labby was a $250,000 winner of the 2022 Grow NY competition and National Science Foundation/Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grant winner, showing the huge promise this technology holds for bringing new capabilities to the agtech industry,” said Dr. Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of Luminate. “By tapping all that New York has to offer, including Luminate, Labby is on its way to building a promising future for the dairy industry — a future anchored in technology, efficiency, and sustainability.”