An Auckland based startup is developing a platform that replicates the sensory part of a human brain to enable a variety of environmental monitoring solutions. Their first solution is using Artificial Intelligence-enabled audio sensors to aid early detection of illnesses in animals by “listening” for signs of respiratory disease.
It is new ground for the founder and CEO of MACSO Technologies, Saba Samiei who has spent most of her professional life researching and understanding Artificial Intelligence (AI) from both an ethical and a technical perspective. In 2017 she started a Master’s degree, studying AI ethics at the Auckland University of Technology, graduating in 2019.
“I made a written promise in my thesis that readers would have read a thesis of someone who did some research and went on to do their part in changing the world,” said Samiei.
After working within the tech space for companies such as IBM, Westpac and Microsoft, Samiei went on to found MACSO Technologies in April 2021, “to do something that nobody else was doing – and I could not do that in the corporate world.”
MACSO Technologies is at the forefront of global AI technology, focusing on making it accessible to as many people as possible with a heavy focus on the non-tech sector. The startup has developed a solution using AI-enabled audio sensors to detect respiratory illnesses in animals early. Samiei believes it is the first solution in the world that targets animal health and animal welfare at the same time.
AI is a replication of natural intelligence and uses algorithms to mimic human decision-making. Or as Samiei says, “We observe and identify intelligent behaviour in humans and replicate it in machines – at a very high level. This is my definition of AI.”
MACSO is also part of Callaghan Innovation’s technology incubator programme, designed for early-stage deep tech investment. Callaghan also provided funding and has assisted with contacts within agritech.
“Their guidance actually landed us our first pilot in New Zealand – a pig farm,” explains Samiei.
In order to programme the AI, Samiei had to understand the behaviour of animals and the day-to-day operations of farmers, and did this by talking with vets and university researchers about how respiratory health detection could work within the swine industry,
Animals don’t have the same abilities as humans to communicate their symptoms, Samiei says, and by the time farmers realise that an animal is sick, the illness or disease could spread through the livestock. AI recognition systems monitors barns in a farm and identifies sick herds.
“What we are developing is a highly scalable platform that can be used across different use cases. We are bringing in additional sensors beyond audio and extending the solution to other species and other sectors,” says Samiei.
“I wanted the company name to represent a culture of thinking outside the box and my love for astrophysics.” Samei thinks of ‘the box’ as being the Milky Way, so she went online and found out the name of the galaxy that was the furthest away from that.
That galaxy was MACS0647-JD back when she chose her company name. So Samiei simply took the first four letters and the first number to name her startup and MACSO Technologies was born.
For several years the business was only an idea and a name, in search of a starting point.
The startup has a staff of six; most of them engineers, and Samiei is currently in the process of hiring a business development manager and an animal science intern.
She is also grateful for the backing she’s received from Bridgewest Ventures, beyond just financial investment as Bridgewest is also connected to the ecosystem of people.
“If I was to list all the things Bridgewest gave me, money would be right at the end – and at the top, it would be confidence and courage. As a business leader you often feel like you’re alone, and I’m not very good at asking for help, so Bridgewest’s support with connections has been invaluable.”
“It was the first time I was talking to people that believed in my vision and in me as a leader.”
This support and global contacts are crucial for business growth. Without them, Samei said she would have had to use her own contacts in the AI industry to build a platform and go consulting to fund the intellectual property side of her startup and grow it from there. But without Bridgewest, there would have been no access to global clients.
“Having access to that global network is very important.”
Another important step for a startup founder, Samiei says, is to have mentors. Samei has two: Mike Burke from Point16 who she met at Westpac, and AUT’s Chief Information Officer Liz Gosling. Samiei met Gosling while she volunteered for FLINT – Future Leaders in Tech, an initiative of TUANZ, Technology User Association New Zealand.
“Both of these people have been cheerleading and supporting me and have given me the confidence to move forward.”
Furthermore, Samiei has a coach, Samar Alrayyes who is a senior client executive at Microsoft and also an advisor to the board of MACSO. “Samar has been fundamental in helping me navigate through the ups and downs of the company set-up. She has the same background as me and has a front row seat at how MACSO progresses and grows.”
With so many ideas, the ambitious Samiei, who also owns AI educational-resource business Comfort AI, says it’s important to know what aspects of the business to focus on at a given moment, and Bridgewest assisted with that.
“They are always there to help me balance in going after too much and doing too little – because that’s a make or break for a startup,” Samiei said.
She said that focusing on controllables will minimise any frustration from aspects of MACSO that are out of her control, leading to a startup where things will “eventually fall into place”.
Resilience, Samiei says, is the top skill a founder needs to develop in a startup. She believes in and shares a vision, but also listens to both feedback, her staff, and the market. “When someone looks at MACSO a hundred years from now, I want them to ask what the world would have been like without it. This is not a one-person job.”
Story by Dave Crampton. In partnership with Bridgewest Ventures.