In the poultry and egg industry, there is no equality– meaning male and female chicks are treated differently as they have different end-uses. Unlike females, the male chick is considered much less profitable for the meat industry, therefore – we apologize in advance if you are reading this paragraph before or during a meal – about 7.5 billion male chicks are killed every year using horrible methods like shredding, burning, poisoning and many other ways that turn you off from eating your next omelet. The females, on the other hand, can lay eggs and grow faster – making them more profitable for the egg industry.
Even if we put the moral argument aside, this industry destroys about 50% of its "production capacity", and wastes not only lives, but also water, energy, space, and manpower along the way. Since the beginning of the year, regulators in Germany and France began to prohibit commercial hatcheries from destroying male chicks, and therefore the hatcheries are required to raise the males and thus suffer heavy financial losses. The regulators in these countries are expected to be joined by regulators throughout Europe and the United States, who have declared their intentions to adopt similar regulations. As a result of these regulations, the war in Ukraine, which led to the increase in food prices, and the bird flu that is hitting large parts of the world, the prices of eggs in Europe and the United States have surged in the past year and threaten nutritional security and access to basic food products (such as eggs). This is where the Israeli startup Soos Technology comes into the picture.
According to the Israeli startup, unlike mammals, many species in nature can change their sex due to changes in their environment. Soos has built a non-invasive system in the form of a smart tray, which controls the temperature and humidity and sound frequencies in commercial hatcheries. "The most significant discovery we found was that exposure to sound transmissions at certain frequencies and intensities in the hatchery significantly affects the sex change process, especially when it is performed from day 0 to day 16," Yael Alter, co-founder, and CEO of Soos, tells us. According to Alter, their technology can influence the embryo to develop into a female, who is eventually able to lay eggs. According to Soos' data, the company's technology currently produces up to 40 percent more females in a "smart" hatchery; it uses collected data and machine learning to improve the technology to reach a ratio of 90 percent females of the total number of hatchlings.
So, why can’t they reach 100% success if they know how to change the sex of the embryo? According to Alter, using sound waves is "a very difficult process as you need to make sure that the sound waves reach all the eggs with the same intensity", but not all the eggs are monitored at this stage. When the transmission configuration is optimal and uniform, she claims that the company will reach over 90%. "It is a biological product with a very complex system, and in biology, there is no such thing as 100% success. Chickens in breeding pens are genetically very similar, but there is still a lack of uniformity between the different chicks and therefore there is variation in the sensitivity to the treatment that the company uses and therefore a variation in the results and."
Soos ("chick" in Arabic) was founded by Yael Alter (CEO) and Neshat Haj Mohammed, who invented the technology and is a member of the company's board of directors, while he manages the blood bank of the Poriya medical center in the Galil in his day to day. Haj Mohammed said that he used to raise chickens in the yard of his house when he noticed that in certain areas more females than males were hatching. After experiments in laboratory incubators that lasted 5 years, he claimed to have identified an incubation protocol. Today, the company already has 3 research pilots in the United States, Italy, and Belgium, and is already on the verge of signing the first commercial agreements in Europe and the United States.
But isn't there a fear here that the entrepreneurs are "playing God" by changing the gender and fate of the chicks? To this, Alter replies that the company isn't really playing God, but is just imitating nature by amplifying a phenomenon that already occurs naturally in nature: "We believe that the positive effects of our solution outweigh the disadvantages by a thousandfold. We improve animal welfare, increase egg production in the world, and make this protein available for a lower price which is important in so many parts of the world. We even evaluated this issue in the form of consumer acceptance in the U.S. with both conservative and liberal consumers. The answers were the same for all of them – they agreed that eggs hatched using Soos are the same as they would be in the natural world– all with the same taste and nutrients."
Equipped with several million
Soos is not the first company to try and solve the problem of male chicks, but the company claims that the competitors mainly try to identify the embryos before they hatch and then prevent any continuation of incubation during those late stages. Other competitors perform invasive tests, by puncturing the egg and extracting fluid to perform PCR and hormonal tests or embryo imaging to distinguish between males and females. Other competitors use technologies based on CRISPR-cas9 (a kind of "genetic editing") and implant in the genes of the incubated embryos a genetic marker that allows them to be identified or destroyed during the incubation process. Alter explains that the company's technology does not require testing each egg separately but works on all the eggs in the hatchery at the same time.
Soos, which employs 25 people, has raised about $9 million to date, from Excel NY, SIBF, TAKWIN and Cornell University among others; the company's latest fundraising round disclosed was for $6 million and was led by Columbus Venture Partners. The company's business model is based on results, where for every female that exceeds the natural rate of 50 percent, it will charge a fee. So, if a certain hatchery produced 150 females instead of 100 females, they would pay the company for the additional 50 females.
You should know that in the meat industry, males are actually more efficient in terms of food utilization and weight gain, so an increase in the number of males is more beneficial. So, Soos has a sister company called Ovo, which deals in sex reversal from females to males for the meat industry needs.