Educated guesswork isn’t foolproof when it comes to diagnosing a dairy cow with contagious and difficult-to-treat Staphylococcus aureus mastitis – and missing the infection can put the rest of the herd at risk. Thankfully, it was a bit of serendipity that led to founding the company that would develop a novel solution to help combat this common farming issue.
Based in the Manawatu, Rhys McKinlay had spent many years in management roles in the dairy and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries. He had been working on a business plan to commercialise some IP for an animal health diagnostics company, when he was made aware of another startup in the same space, which had complementary technology, but needed some commercial impetus to progress their offering.
This is where an opportunity arose to merge the two businesses, and with guidance from Manawatu business incubator The Factory and backing from some very supportive angel investors, Koru Diagnostics was established. The company focused on developing and trialling a high-throughput laboratory test that uses routine herd testing milk samples to accurately detect subclinical S. aureus mastitis infections.
Using herd test samples means no extra sampling work for the farmer. The convenient, early means of identification helps farmers break the chain of infection by separating infected animals or milking them last, thereby minimising the impact on milk production and, therefore, farm income.
“Our StaphGold™ ELISA test provides new information for farmers to help them control the spread of the infection in their herd. Staphylococcus aureus is also elusive, only shedding bacteria into the milk intermittently or not at all, so although it’s possible to take an infected milk sample and try to culture S. aureus bacteria or detect it via PCR, it is quite often not detectable using that technology,” says McKinlay.
“Our StaphGold™ ELISA test detects the animal’s specific immune response to S. aureus, which is more accurate for use on herd test samples and is not reliant upon shedding of the bacteria into the milk, or at risk of sample contaminants causing false-positive results.”
Mastitis in cows isn’t usually life-threatening, but the effects of mastitis – especially subclinical cases – can cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars each year, sometimes without them knowing. Subclinical S. aureus mastitis is like a massive iceberg under the water that can’t be seen; an invisible thief that robs farmers of milk output. It can spread from animal to animal, which in turn, increases somatic cell count, a key determinant of milk quality.
Other costs of mastitis can include discarded milk (when cows are being treated with antibiotics), vet fees and drug costs, possible loss of genetic worth and high milk output if infected animals must be culled, and the financial ‘grade’ penalties incurred when a herd’s bulk tank somatic cell counts exceed the maximum permitted level.
“It is also very common worldwide for farmers to be paid extra at the end of the season, if their average bulk tank SCC is especially low,” explains McKinlay. By detecting S.aureus cases early and stopping its spread, somatic cell count levels can be more easily managed over the season, with higher output and better quality milk meaning more money in the farmer’s pocket.
At the end of the day, a healthy cow is a happy one; one that will perform well, produce more, better quality milk, and not have to be repeatedly exposed to antibiotics that may not even resolve the issue. But if the answer is not always treating with antibiotics, how can knowing about the presence of the infection help farmers?
“As the only test specifically designed to detect this particular type of infection in these herd test samples, we’re giving farmers and their vets the opportunity to make informed animal management and treatment decisions.
“For example, if farmers are aware of which cows have Staph aureus mastitis, they can milk them last to stop transmission across the herd, as the bacteria spread from cow to cow through milking equipment,” says McKinlay.
Coming up with this kind of innovative technology has certainly been an exciting journey for McKinlay. But like many whose footsteps he has followed into entrepreneurship, his first foray into running a business has certainly presented a few challenges along the way. Because while McKinlay has never doubted the product he was helping to develop, there were things outside of his control that have slowed the overall progress.
“In today’s COVID-19 world, everything just takes more time than you think it will. You can’t easily control the responsiveness of your customers, some of whom have suffered from COVID-19 themselves and, in some parts of Europe, dealing with extended lockdowns. So it means that sending kits away for customer trials just takes longer, and personal and business relationships are positive, but not as deeply established as they would likely otherwise be.
“This would normally be a job where I would be visiting customers all over the world, but that isn’t easily possible right now.” McKinlay is confident that changes to MIQ rules and vaccination rates will improve travel prospects in 2022.
“We’re already selling trial kits around the world, but being able to demonstrate the test’s performance and engage with customers across a table instead of via Zoom will make a big difference.”
While there are a few things he would have done differently if he was to start back at square one, he believes that you always make the decisions you do with the information you have at that moment. So in other words, there’s no regrets. And why would there be? Koru Diagnostics already has a number of other innovations currently in the R&D phase which will only add to all the hard yards McKinlay and the team have put in so far.
Story by Erin Harrison. In partnership with Central Economic Development Agency.