FORT COLLINS – It began as a radical idea to end cattle branding. Now it could be the key to the future of the American beef market.
Optibrand Ltd. LLC launched its OptiReader to the commercial market at the end of 2003 – one week after a cow in Washington was discovered to be infected with Bovine Spongiform Enchphalopathy, more commonly known “Mad Cow Disease”.
The serendipitous timing worked in Optibrand’s favor; the company is receiving worldwide attention in trade magazines and major news outlets like CBS and USA Today. Earlier this month members of Japan’s Nippon media visited Optibrand to find out more about the reader.
“We have a press delegation out every other week or so,´ said Bruce Golden, Optibrand’s CEO.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to let the marketplace determine the technology used in the National Animal Identification System. This is good news for Optibrand because the company’s system is so versatile.
“Our technology is one of many alternatives that meets the standards of NAIS,” Golden said. “Our customers are gravitating towards our solution because of the secure features no other technology offers.”
The safety of technology
Optibrand is built on the simple idea of finding a way to identify cattle from birth to butcher. Ranchers and feedlot operators traditionally relied on a paper system which tracked cattle by their individual ear tag numbers and by branding on the rear.
The company’s Secure Identity Preservation system offers a humane and non-invasive method to identify livestock by photographing the retina.
The device uses the retinal vascular pattern – the pattern of blood vessels located at the back of the eye. The retinal vascular pattern is present from birth, never changing from birth to death.
The OptiReader is a combination handheld computer and ocular fundus digital video camera. The user holds the reader in front of the eye of the animal for less than a second. The camera captures an image and the computer stores the image and records the date, time, and location of the animal. The computer contains a global positioning system to provide accurate information.
The reader wand also contains a bar code reader to read codes imprinted on a carcass. Optibrand also developed a wand, which reads any microchips implanted in the cattle.
This information is downloaded to a computer and the customer can use the information to analyze herds and track birth traits. This information is then encrypted into a database to track an animal from birth to feedlot to slaughter.
Another important safety feature of the program is the security of the OptiReader. The device housing cannot be opened without disabling the device, making the system tamper-proof.
“For larger customers we charge them a subscription fee rather than a per-click fee,” Golden said. “It is our customers’ data so we give them the hardware and the software that manages the data. We monitor what is going on in real time, and we take care of the hardware.”
Leading in the marketplace
Optibrand is a graduate of the Fort Collins Virtual Incubator, which provides discounted professional services to start-up companies. The company graduated from the incubator – now called the Fort Collins Technology Incubator – in April 2003, and is now the organization’s shining star.
“When they started in the incubator they held onto our coat tails, but now I feel like we are holding on to their coat tails as they are more and more successful,´ said Kathy Kregel, executive director of the Fort Collins Technology Incubator. “I am just tickled for them at all of their success.”
The company has a select few customers including Greeley-based Swift & Co. and Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats. Within the next five years, Golden said he hopes to have an international presence in all major livestock species and to be a larger provider in the food safety world.
The company is on track to reach those goals. While Golden declined to comment on revenues, he mentioned the company now employs 20 people and recently moved to a 4,800-square-foot office space in the Opera Galleria in downtown Fort Collins, which doubled the previous headquarters space.