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New technology could prevent the mass cull of male chicks

A staggering 6.5 billion chicks are killed worldwide every year. These are generally male chicks that are of no economic value. In Ovo has developed technology that can quickly determine the sex of a chick, to ensure that only female chicks are hatched. The first 150,000 chicks have now hatched in this animal-friendly process.

In Ovo has developed a machine – Ella – that quickly determines the sex of an egg. This gives hatcheries the option to only hatch females, which is a considerable improvement in terms of both animal welfare and sustainability. It is In Ovo’s mission to roll this technology out worldwide and thus end the cull of male chicks. The company signed a covenant in 2014 with the Central Organisation for Hatching Eggs and Chicks, Leiden University, Animal Protection and the government, and on this basis received funding to further develop its technology. The successful hatching of the first 150,000 chicks is the result of years of research and a crucial milestone in solving the problem. 

The successful hatching of the first 150,000 chicks is the result of years of research

Ella, where bio and tech meet

Ella tests eggs early in the incubation process, works on brown and white eggs, and is quick and accurate. The technology was only possible thanks to a combination of technological breakthroughs. In Ovo found a new biomarker for sex in collaboration with Leiden University. And with the company Demcon it developed an automatic sampling method that can extract a minuscule sample from an egg, and was the first to use the world’s fastest mass-spectrometer, the Sciex Echo® MS, outside the lab. The result is the rapid, automated sexing of eggs on day nine of the incubation process, which means Ella can seamlessly be added to the existing process at commercial hatcheries.

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Strong together

The culling of male chicks is a problem that affects the poultry sector, consumers, policymakers, NGOs and retailers. In Ovo received vital input and help from various stakeholders. It is pleased that Het Anker hatchery has implemented the technology, and that egg suppliers Kwetters, Interovo Egg Group en Gebr. Van Beek committed at an early stage to using the chicks. This group of partners is unique and makes it possible to scale up the technology.

In Ovo founders Wil Stutterheim (left) and Wouter Bruins. They started the company while studying at Leiden University..

The future: making an impact

In Ovo is growing fast and is ready to make more of an impact. To speed up the adoption of the technology, shareholders VisVires New Protein and Evonik Venture Capital have made a new investment of several million euros. One hundred and fifty thousand chicks is just the beginning. With the current Ella system, a hatchery will be able to hatch a million female chicks per year without culling day-old male chicks. To meet the high demand, the technology is constantly being improved. Within a few months a new Ella machine will be introduced with a capacity of five million hens per year, and the international roll out of this technology will begin.

Leiden University spin-off

Wouter Bruins and his colleague Wil Stutterheim started In Ovo during their studies in Leiden – Bruins was studying Biology and Stutterheim Biomedical Sciences. They worked with partners including Professor of Analytical Biomedical Sciences Thomas Hankemeier and the LACDR. 

‘The collaboration with In Ovo was really exciting and productive,’ says Hankemeier. ‘We are proud to have developed a biomarker and an egg-scanning method together with the company. Thanks to mass spectometry we can collect biochemical profiles on a large scale without the need for expensive reagents. This is a good example of why we believe that innovative analysis techniques and mass spectometry can lead to new applications in the life sciences. We are really pleased that we can now prevent the slaughter of millions of male chicks!’

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