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The aquaculture company using high tech automation to revolutionise fish vaccination

Disease costs the global aquaculture industry more than £6bn every year - but Scottish company Aqualife Services is about to sweep away the old manual process, partly thanks to a loan from UMi Debt Finance Scotland. Supported under the Scottish Growth Scheme, the UMi loan scheme is designed to help Scottish SMEs innovate, grow and diversify.

Aqualife has vaccinated more than 1.6 billion fish worth £10bn since starting up in 1996 and is now a market leader supporting vaccine companies and fish farms around the world. But the company is also in the process of unveiling a brand-new way of vaccinating a wide range of fish, the Inoca semi-automated fish vaccination unit, with a fully automated unit in development.

Chief Executive Officer Gordon Jeffery is the driving force behind the world first technology:

“We started thinking about automating manual vaccination way back in 2003, and at the time were awarded a government grant to look at the feasibility of building such a system, but we were too far ahead of the curve. Now the technology has caught up, and we commissioned the building of a proof-of-concept system called ‘The Inocubot’ – a fully automated vaccination system using cameras to determine where the fish is, so we can instruct a robot to inject it, while also determining the fish health, fins and gill colour, and storing the images for future use.

“It’s worked so well we’re now building a three robot commercial prototype, with funding from the Scottish Government and a small equity raise, and we plan to roll out the first system in 2022."

Aqualife has also completed testing on the Inoca unit, which is able to easily switch between different vaccination strategies and also work with different species. It requires less than half the operators of a traditional manual vaccination team and requires little training as fish are simply fed into it.

So why go to UMi Debt Finance Scotland? Gordon explained: “We’re hungry for funds. We’re transitioning from a service-based company to a tech-led business, and that requires funding. And of course, there’s been the impact of COVID. We had a team in Australia when lockdown started and it took us a month to get them home, and there have been many other plans which had to be put on hold.

“We heard about UMi via Scottish Enterprise and our dealings with them were a pleasure from start to finish. I liked their personal touch, and the way they really wanted to know about the actual business, which is quite unusual – most funders just look at the figures.

“The process was extremely smooth, it was quick, and it was at exactly the right time for us.”

UMi Debt Finance Scotland Fund Director, Tom Brock, said what Aqualife had achieved in such a short time was well worth supporting: “Gordon and his team took an idea of semi automation and in just 18 months developed a unit which will speed up vaccinations for a much wider range of fish, making the entire process quicker and more affordable.”

Gordon added: “The Inoca is also simple, light and extremely quiet compared to other systems on the market – and we’ve already had huge interest from Africa and Asia.”

So what else is in the pipeline for Aqualife? “Vaccine delivery has never been more talked about - and if we can automate it for fish, why not automate it for humans, so that you simply visit a booth in a shopping centre and there’s no need to overburden the health system and your local surgery. Innovate UK has given us a feasibility study grant to look into this, and I’m confident it will have international applications, Gordon concluded.”

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