Contestants compete to determine a chick’s sex before hatching

Photo: Orbem
Photo: Orbem

Up to US$4 million is on offer for a contestant that can develop and validate a working prototype that can determine a chick’s sex before hatching.

The second phase of the Egg Tech Prize, run by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and Open Philanthropy, is underway following initial funding a couple of years ago to 6 winners.

The first phase winners were:

· The University of Minnesota – to use an artificial intelligence platform for rapid and non-invasive egg sex identification. Scientists have been developing a 3D scanner to analyse the geometric shape of eggs and proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry to analyse volatile organic compounds and other molecules.

· Orbem AI – to develop specialised technology that automatically scans and classifies eggs without touching them. The team has been using accelerated magnetic resonance imaging technology with advanced artificial intelligence. The MRI approach allows them to examine the organ development of embryos to detect physical differences between males and females without penetrating the shell.

· Microscale Devices LLC – to use multidimensional spectral mapping technology to identify the sex of eggs from 0-12 days of incubation. The technology shoots different wavelengths of light at the egg and detects the refracted light patterns. Artificial intelligence is then employed to develop an optical fingerprint, or signature, that can determine the sex of eggs in less than 5 seconds.

· KU Leuven – to use a gender-specific volatile detection technique to determine sex in ovo.

· USDA-ARS – to use fibreoptics and machine learning for analysis of volatiles towards in ovo sex determination.

· SensIT Ventures Inc – to develop a microchip-based chemical sensor for early-stage in ovo sex determination. The team are capturing and characterising gases released from individual eggs during storage and incubation. They are then developing a chemical sensor chip to detect the VOCs and use machine learning to classify the eggs by gender.

The competition is important as male chick culling is a major animal welfare challenge and creates lost opportunity costs for farmers.

Welfare, cost and carbon footprint

If egg hatcheries had technology that determine the egg’s sex on the day it is laid, over 6 billion male eggs could be used for food, animal feed or vaccine production. Additionally, eggs are incubated for 21 days before they hatch. This technology could vastly reduce the cost and carbon footprint of incubating layer eggs while freeing up the space for the incubation of female eggs – increasing efficiency of production.

Estimates suggest that preventing male chick culling could save the egg industry approximately $500 million from wasted eggs and labour.

Contestants have until the end of August to enter the competition.

Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist