How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Matthew Rooda fused:
- agriculture, medicine, & "hi-tech"
- porcine litters
- best-practice management methods across farms
"No, that's a milk fight."
"How do you know?"
"See, it's only 3–4 seconds."
"OK. That's it!"
"No, it's not loud enough."
"Look at the decibel meter."
"Hmmm. I guess that's not it, either."
"No No No No No! That's it! Quick — get her off or he's going to die! Press the button!"
It's not your usual day in the office, and it's not your usual day on the farm. But it was a fairly usual day when developing intelligent technology that could distinguish between the squeal of a piglet fighting with its litter-mates for milk and the squeal of a piglet being crushed to death by its 350- to 600-pound mother (136- to 227-kg). A death squeal is loud and lasts at least 30 seconds. A piglet that is laid on by its mother typically struggles for 4 minutes and dies from suffocation.
That may not be something you really wanted to know, but if you're a farmer, it is. Farming is won in the details. A pork producer tracks all productivity with a swine management system and that allows them to pinpoint weaknesses and trends. The average sow will give birth to 14 piglets and some will have as many as 29. A producer is constantly looking at feed to weight-gain ratios, genetic improvements, and ways to automate processes, as well as ways to save and grow lives.
Potential savings worldwide per year: USD 8 billion.
So, you'll really want your sows to get up when crushing a piglet. SwineTech devices do just that, via a specially-developed sound analyser that tracks sound patterns (in addition to decibel and duration) and a special belt tied around the sow's waist.
When a piglet is being crushed and the mother does not rise on her own, it delivers a mild vibration similar to an electronic dog collar, prompting her to rise and save a life. The device operates automatically (so no more need for developers standing by).
It took a special kind of innovator (and company founder) to:
1. find the problem,
2. care about the problem,
3. integrate expertise from agriculture, medicine, and engineering, and
4. bring the solution to the world with keen leadership and entrepreneurship.
Matthew Rooda began farming before he began school. His grandfather had a family farm with pigs, and his Dad helped him join in the work, as farm families have always done. Matthew recalls having fun helping out at age 5 or 6 and riding in a little wagon that transported feed to the sows.
He created his own job as a first-grader, collecting steel gates, and hired himself out in fifth grade, vaccinating animals on nearby farms. He worked at a grocery store as a teenager but realised entrepreneurship paid better, and he could try out his more creative ideas (like car-washing farm buildings).
They sold the farm when Matthew was 11, and he had no contact with farms or pigs until age 16 because new corporate farm-insurance rules prohibit anyone under 16 on-site. Today's corporate-farm kids grow up very differently than they used to.
When Matthew graduated from high school, he was hired as a farm assistant and learned farrowing (pig breeding) — the operations, medicine, and business. Every morning, he checked on all the mums and piglets and often found dead piglets, which had to be diagnosed and recorded (death from crushing, disease, etc.).
Most causes were obvious, but when they weren't, he performed a quick autopsy before recording and carrying out his bucket of dead piglets to the composting system.
Anyone who's enjoyed Winne the Pooh or the movie Babe knows piglets are cute. Matthew likes the little animals and didn't want to see lives wasted. Since animals are raised for slaughter, a farmer cannot afford to over-sentimentalize, yet on the other hand, we do not become robots when we go to work.
Matthew had been around death since he was a small child, so it didn't bother him too much, but he valued life. Oddly, farming was not his passion. He really wanted to be an obstetrician. His favorite activity was helping new life enter the world and providing every opportunity to succeed.
Most of the people he worked with just wanted to get their jobs done and resisted new ideas. Matthew, on the other hand, was fascinated with making things better. He wanted to make a difference instead of just doing the job the way it's always been done.
Matthew learned from the veterinarian and from other farms in the area. He drastically increased production by adopting successful practices wherever he found them. He then took over the farrowing operation (which normally requires a two-year degree) and created a new method he'd never seen before: runt litters.
When piglets are only a pound at birth, they generally won't survive 21 days (to weaning) and may even be euthanized to avoid "wasting" resources on them. Matthew felt there might be a better way. He looked for sows who appeared to be good mothers, collected all the runts into one litter, gave it to the foster-sow, and moved her piglets to the original runt litters. It worked. (And the sows didn't mind.)
Unfortunately, when he left, he was told they wouldn't continue the runt litters, because no one cared to pay attention to such details and continue practicing his new method. About 2 years later, he read a research report from Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. They had discovered a new method — runt litters — demonstrated its effectiveness, and recommended widespread adoption (of the method and the pigs).
When Matthew arrived at work each day, he had to induce the sows to stand, in order to prevent sores. He quickly found it was relatively easy to teach them to stand up on their own in response to a sound (a steel bar tapping a crate). He knew they could learn. In fact, a pig is estimated to have the intelligence of a 3-year-old child.
As he walked through the piggery during his workday, taking care of the animals, he could distinguish different cries and sounds, the way a new mother distinguishes her baby's sounds — a unique, custom-developed language. As mothers quickly learn (in order to work and sleep), when he heard something that didn't need his attention, he ignored it. When he heard a cry that meant a problem, he intervened.
Since he wasn't there 24/7 to intervene, he wondered if there was a way to sense the sound and issue a trigger for the sows to stand up. After all, if a human can sense, analyze, and respond, why can't a machine?
He shared the idea with his Dad, who shared the idea with the owner of his company, who got very excited, saying there were real commercial possibilities if it would work. He told Matthew, who quickly responded, seeking advice from an acoustical company.
"My brother-in-law is part-owner of the largest acoustical company in America. Because he's an acoustical engineer, I told Matthew he ought to talk to him and find out if this is even feasible — whether currently-available technology could actually sense and distinguish the different types of squeals. He responded that the first thing you need to do is find out the difference in the decibel level between a pig arguing and a pig being hurt. So, during school break, Matthew bought a decibel meter online for 100 bucks, went to a sow unit, and recorded different squeals. He found out that hurt-piglets are the only animals squealing over a certain decibel. That got the ball rolling, and he got involved with an accelerator. Then everything went crazy."
— Dan Rooda, father
They quickly found there was a lot more involved than the loudness of the squeal. They needed a reader that would map the sounds' wavelengths, as well as a method for inciting the sow to rise (original vision: a robot). Once they could sense and respond, they had to analyze, which meant developing their own software. To develop software, they developed a company.
Matthew received an email about the University of Iowa's summer Venture School program, which offered a stipend to promising new companies. He applied and was accepted. He knew something about agriculture, medicine, and business, but nothing about software development or engineering. So, he pulled together a small team (two of whom remain business partners). They got a small stipend (USD 1,500) that allowed them to buy more equipment and keep developing.
They were then recruited out of 900 companies to join the Iowa Startup Accelerator, which would require that the team drop out of school for a semester, which they didn't want to do. So instead, they took classes online to keep up with their cohort and retain their university benefits. To lead a team of engineers, Matthew also earned SCRUM certification and a certificate in International Business Operations. Life was intense.
They made an economic case for commercial viability and talked to potential customers to ensure acceptance. Farmers easily saw the economic benefits and started asking questions, wondering if the waistband device could also integrate and deliver more data, such as health information.
Could it operate like a Fitbit?
Although an odd idea to put a Fitbit on a pig, up-to-the-minute health information like temperature can be very useful. For example, a sow's temperature rises 2 degrees just before giving birth. If the SwineTech band could send an alert, the farmer could be present when the litter is being born and help with complications.
SwineTech could solve a high-value problem AND become a platform for much more.
Few people working on farms intend to pursue medicine, software development, or engineering. They either want to farm or have no clear path to anything else. However, Matthew did want to cross over into medicine and studied pre-med courses and special-interest topics like genetics and biotechnology.
There were two ways for him to gain needed medical exposure outside the classroom: either shadow a doctor (seeing and listening but not doing) or work on a farm learning and practicing veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Medical schools view both favorably and increasingly seek "out of the box" learning, so off he went, crossing over from one field to another.
In fact, farms are like small countries. No one travels from farm to farm seeing what they do, looking for transferrable practices. But Matthew did. He crossed farm boundaries.
Further, most people train for a job and then do it, without constantly challenging why things are done the way they're done — and whether they can be done better. But Matthew did. He pushed the boundaries of status quo.
"He was a challenging child and constantly pushed the envelope. He's still that way — pushing and crossing boundaries."
- Dan Rooda, father
"I was always the kid that liked to push everybody to the limit — see how far I could go to get away with something. It's just my personality — to cross every boundary I can find."
Matthew started crossing boundaries with his parents. He was born in North Carolina to a farm manager and a teacher who relocated to Iowa for better education. Although not an international move, it was a move from state to state and from city to country.
"I was never that much into farming. I was always that city kid who lived down in the country."
Matthew was different, and his teacher noticed something about the "different" kids.
"In junior high, Matthew's teacher said there were 3 kids in his class that were able to think out-of-the-box, and he was one of them. ‘Funny thing was … the kids that could think out of the box had all moved from somewhere else."
- Dan Rooda, father
Friends and family describe Matthew as ambitious, competitive, self-driven, strong-willed, honest, open to new ideas & trying new things, never discarding potentially-useful ideas (so, an idea collector). He reads and continually seeks new knowledge across a variety of fields — questioning, listening, and absorbing others' expertise.
He is incredibly energetic, always pursuing both school and work, sometimes both full-time. At one point, he was reporting to work at 3am, leaving at 8:30 for school, and returning to work from 1–6 pm. Oddly, reducing his workload to normalize his hours reduced his grades as well as his work output, so he resumed his crazy schedule.
He has great leadership and people skills and holds attention well in conversation and presentations. (Skills he began honing as a child telling anecdotes at family weddings.) He senses others' emotions (be it an individual or an audience) offers help and advice where needed.
Managing people well has been enormously important for him. Matthew's first management experience was at age 20, when he took over from someone 44 years old who had been managing the farm for 14 years — and had just been re-assigned as Matthew's assistant.
He builds a cohesive team, keeps people informed, and his investors trust him.
When does he get his best business-boosting ideas? Like many innovators, he gets creative when bored.*
"When you power-wash a pig house (or other tedious jobs), you can solve the world's problems. With nothing for your mind to do, you're consciously brainstorming."
Ironically, his Dad had other motives when he assigned his son to power-washing:
"I wanted him to have absolutely nothing to do with livestock and raising hogs. So, I got him to do a lot of power washing … and he hated it. He hated it, and that was my goal. Finally, I got my kid to hate raising hogs, so out of the farm and on to college, right?"
- Dan Rooda, father
Although it wasn't the original plan, combining hogs and higher education worked out quite well. In 2015, Matthew founded SwineTech, Inc. and in 2016 became the University of Iowa's Entrepreneur of the Year. His presentation skills and business plan won 1st Place awards from Harvard, Princeton, and Microsoft. In 2017, became the National Student Entrepreneur of the Year, International Business Model Champion, USA Ambassador of Entrepreneurship.
And he's now in Forbes 30 under 30.
Matthew feels there has been a plan, even though it wasn't clear at the beginning, and inspiration comes from a Higher source than the power-washer (which simply gives his mind time to listen). He credits his faith for his work-ethic and caring, having grown up in a Christian home and faith-based school. However, he's also been continually in the right place, at the right time, finding just the right opportunities and people, just when he needed them.
Matthew has a unique collection of skills and ideas in his head that began with being different — city kid in the country and pre-med working with pigs. He then collected ideas and practices across farms and across fields (not crop fields, but fields like agriculture, medicine, and business). He gathered people around him with skills and knowledge he didn't have (like audio diagnostics, software development, and engineering). Whatever he created (like "runt-littering") in-turn became part of his mental workshop — fodder for more innovation.
Helping new life thrive has become the basis for his own life to thrive. He didn't follow exactly his dream of being a doctor. But sometimes, we find a better dream along the way.
Do you feel "different" from those around you?
What might you collect across boundaries, assemble, and apply in a new way?
Will you help a new life thrive, including your own?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
*see TED.com talk by Manoush Zomorodi, " How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas."
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Matthew Rooda, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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