As early as the 1950s, long before its hi-tech scene had attained the global recognition that it can proudly boast of today, Israel had already made remarkable technological breakthroughs in agriculture that were quickly adopted worldwide.Drip irrigation is perhaps only the most widely celebrated example in a long line of Israeli innovations that have helped feed millions of hungry mouths around the world since the state’s founding.It is only natural, therefore, that agricultural technology should remain somewhat of an Israeli specialty to this day. Most local academic institutions still invest significant resources into agricultural research, and every year sees the introduction of new promising startups geared toward rendering the production of food ever more efficient, economical and sustainable.
An aptly named startup, EggXYt, is one of the most promising new players in Israel’s vigorous agritech scene. Founded a little over a year ago, the young company has vowed to provide a technological solution to the egg industry’s ghastliest skeleton in the closet.Chickens are conventionally raised for their meat or for their eggs, and are accordingly bred either as “broilers” or as “layers” to fulfill these two purposes. Broilers are prized for their ability to put on weight and so are raised for the slaughterhouse, while layers are reared for egg production alone. Since male chickens are utterly useless for either of these roles, in an industrialized world they are ultimately destined for a short and brutal life.As there is currently no way to identify the sex of the chick before it has hatched, poultry farms and hatcheries are left with no economically viable alternative but to kill the male chicks en masse in a variety of ways; a cruel demonstration of the disposability of farm animals that most consumers of eggs and poultry would rather put out of their minds. Estimates point to between four and seven billion male chickens worldwide that are killed by the industry in this way each year.Neuroscientist and EggXYt Co-Founder Prof. Daniel Offen was dumbfounded to hear of this practice a few years ago – not only on account of its cruelty, but because of the striking gap between recent advancements in neuroscience and the relatively backward methods still applied in the egg industry.“Today, scientists studying the human brain can identify specific cells out of hundreds of billions,” Offen explains. “I was entirely surprised to discover that the egg of a chicken – with a mere 60,000 to 100,000 cells – somehow remains an enigma to hatcheries trying to determine the sex of the chick in advance. To me this was a challenge I could not refuse.”Driven not only by the intellectual curiosity of a scientist but even more so by a compulsion to utilize the scientific knowledge at his disposal for meaningful ends, Offen had soon drawn up an initial concept for the identification of a chicken’s sex while still in the egg, and was determined to develop it into a fully applicable technology. Partnering with co-founder Yehuda Elram, an experienced entrepreneur and himself born to a family of poultry farmers, the two were set on making the idea a reality.Initially, the founders of EggXYt had financed the first stages of their venture by bootstrapping, but were successful in securing additional backing from a variety of sources.The company was accepted into the Mass Challenge accelerator program in Jerusalem and was awarded first prize; substantial grants both from Israel’s Chief Scientist and from the European Union’s “Horizon 2020” program soon followed.These can be explained not only by the compelling moral argument underlying the EggXYt venture, which seeks to end one of the most indefensible practices still used by mankind, but also by the tremendous economic value that its technology offers to the egg industry as well as consumers around the world.“Apart from being utterly gruesome, the current methods applied by hatcheries are primitive and inefficient,” Elram explains. “With no way of classifying eggs by the sex of the chicken before the actual hatching, modern hatcheries are still employing costly personnel to sift through chicks on an assembly line and separate the females from the males – these to life and these to a quick and ugly death.”However, the bulk of the tremendous waste in economic terms begins in earlier stages of production. With no way of classifying the sex of the chicks before they hatch from their eggs, hatcheries are left with no choice but to incubate all eggs for a period of 21 days before hatching, adding to the cost of production that is ultimately deducted from consumers’ pockets.“Farmers are essentially producing 100 eggs and are only left with 50 they can use,” emphasizes Elram. This utter waste, coupled with the costly employment of human labor in the sifting process, amounts to over a billion dollars globally by most estimates.The detectors currently developed by EggXYt, based on a non-invasive method involving optics and biology, will discern the DNA structure of the egg without altering it in any way – “examining the egg and keeping it whole” – thereby enabling hatcheries to identify the sex of the chick immediately after the egg has been laid, a genuine revolution in the egg industry by any measure.This would render superfluous the need for the grotesque assembly line of chicks and, better yet, would allow egg producers to eliminate fertilized eggs carrying male chicks before incubating them in the first place. As of today, there is not a single company in the field that has even attempted to develop such technology aiming for detection before the incubation process.The initial research led by EggXYt has already demonstrated a proof-of-concept for each of the separate stages of the detection process proposed by Offen, and the company is poised to move forward with development within a year, pending further investment.It may yet take some time before their revolutionary product hits the market, but its potential impact is well worth the wait.“Our idea is entirely within the realm of the possible, and will become a reality in the very near future,” Offen concludes enthusiastically. “There remains much work to be done, but if successful, will be a genuine example of tikkun olam [improving the world].”