Uruguayuan entrepreneur and Chipsafer founder and CEO Victoria Alonsoperez reveals how she developed the start-up’s flagship livestock tracking device, which is cost-effective, rechargeable and non-invasive; the rationale behind the decision to relocate their HQ to Singapore in 2020; and her thoughts on entrepreneurship in Latin America.
Victoria, you founded your company, Chipsafer, in 2012, so almost a decade ago. How did it all begin and what are you working on right now?
The story of Chipsafer started in 2012 when I came up with the idea of designing something to track livestock remotely and autonomously. I submitted the idea to the International Telecommunication Union Young Innovators Competition. To my surprise, I won the competition, which led me to create my own company, Chipsafer. I received some funding the following year but it was not until 2014 that I started working on Chipsafer fulltime. That same year, the Inter-American Development Bank selected Chipsafer as the Most Innovative Startup of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the MIT Technology Review selected me as the Innovator of the Year – Argentina & Uruguay.
In 2015, I moved to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil because I had two business partners there.
In 2018, Chipsafer became the first startup accepted by the Flex Advanced Incubation Center in Singapore to join their inaugural accelerator program (Flex is a global leader in advanced design and manufacturing). This was very exciting for me because I had always wanted to work with them. During this time, I was also having serious issues with manufacturing because none of the service providers we worked with around the world were able to meet our standards and needs. After we started working with Flex in Singapore, we realized that Singapore was the right location for us, not only because of its world-class high-tech manufacturing sector but also because of its strategic location within Asia-Pacific and the opportunities we could access as a result.
Therefore, in 2020, we relocated our headquarters to Singapore and I have been here ever since. We have established an entire line of production here, so we are now in production mode.
We are also in the process of fundraising so that we can continue growing the company as much as possible.
Did you experience any culture shock when you moved from Brazil to Singapore?
To be honest, Singapore is such a cosmopolitan city that I really did not experience culture shock. I had travelled to Japan and South Korea previously, where I did notice some cultural differences, but not in Singapore. First of all, everyone speaks English, so there is no language barrier. Secondly, Singapore is so cosmopolitan that you can find almost every nationality here and almost every type of food, which is amazing.
Uruguayan food is actually very European, and personally, my family is half Italian and half Spanish, so with all the Spanish and Italian restaurants in Singapore, I can feel right at home. I can buy international ingredients in local supermarkets or from Amazon. Overall, my move to Singapore has been very smooth!
What is Chipsafer’s mission today?
We have created a platform where livestock can be monitored remotely and autonomously through an external self-recharging device worn by the animal around its neck. Farmers are able to know the precise locations of their livestock at all times. They can also receive alerts if an animal goes beyond a specified perimeter. We also provide farmers with a completely standalone management software. Through our platform, farmers are able to better manage their resources and run their operations more sustainably. It also helps in the prevention of cattle rustling.
At the same time, our platform also benefits consumers that are interested in food sustainability issues. For instance, our platform is able to assure consumers that the beef they consume were sustainably sourced and not raised in the middle of the Amazon Forest, for instance, so it did not contribute to deforestation.
We currently have customers across Latin America as well as in Australia. We have also run a couple of projects in Kenya and Namibia, which were very promising. We are actively looking into expanding into other regions, and have spoken to many prospects from all over the world.
Given that agriculture can be quite a conservative industry, did you face any challenges convincing farmers to adopt this new technology?
Actually, once farmers saw the benefits of our platform, they were very open to trying it out. The number one problem was cost. Farmers, especially livestock farmers, grapple with extremely slim margins, which we were aware of, so we invested a long time in creating a device that is not only highly reliable in terms of both hardware and software but also incredibly cost-effective so that farmers could actually afford to use it.
Do you have plans to expand Chipsafer’s focus beyond livestock farming?
Certainly, our technology has many potential applications. In fact, we receive many requests from different parts of the world constantly, for instance, for the tracking of wildlife and even of house pets. We are currently focused on livestock but these other applications are definitely on the roadmap. As a small start-up, we have to focus our energies and efforts but hopefully we will be able to grow in the future to meet all these different needs.
Changing topics slightly, the Uruguayan start-up scene has been flourishing over the past couple of years. Can you share a little on how you see its potential?
Uruguay has become something of a tech hub in the region, also attracting many entrepreneurs from Argentina. This is a great opportunity for Uruguay to leverage on the human capital in the region.
In general, the tech sector in the region has grown a lot but the focus still seems to be on software rather than hardware or deep tech, though there is now a satellite company, Satellogic, present in Uruguay, which is fantastic. Space is my passion so it is very cool knowing that there is a company building satellites in my home country. However, generally speaking, start-ups in Latin America are more focused on areas like e-commerce and software instead of deep tech like biotech. This is in large part because of the lack of hardware manufacturing in the region.
When I was trying to build the Chipsafer device in Uruguay, it was very difficult because each time we needed a new part, we had to import it from the US or another country, which would take a long time and be very expensive. Being in Singapore is a completely different story, and as a result, it is so much easier to innovate here.
Do you think deep tech is something that every country and region should invest in?
Yes, definitely. Deep tech capabilities are important to every country. With COVID, we have seen the importance of having manufacturing facilities for all sorts of products, be it masks, medical devices or vaccines, for each country. It is really critical that each country invests in innovation and maintains their domestic capabilities for high-tech manufacturing.
I also think a lot of innovation can happen in regions like Latin America, even if we are newer to these sectors. It would also be good to avoid investing in too many similar ideas. For instance, I can recall a time when apps for tracking and predicting bus arrivals were extremely popular. There were at least four companies designing the same kind of app, and even back then. I thought, bus companies are not going to need four apps, and in the end, they simply designed their own apps.
I would like to see more innovation occurring in Latin America, especially in deep tech. Investors here are still quite reluctant to invest in hardware. They tend to focus on software only.
How do you see the potential for collaboration and investment between Asian and Latin companies? SoftBank is a notable Asian investor that has entered the region but connections are still rare – why do you think that is?
Latin Americans typically look at the US first, due to the proximity and historical connections, or Europe. For instance, when it comes to investment, people in the region generally think that if you want to raise money, you have to go to the US. I have not personally had a lot of contact with the Latin American VC ecosystem, though I know there are some Brazilian funds that have become more active in the region recently.
In terms of investment, the Asian ecosystem is definitely a lot more mature. The other day, I saw that someone I had met in Singapore had raised USD 200 million for his start-up. I found out through a LinkedIn post that he had liked, but other than that, there seemed to be very little fanfare. In Latin America, if a local company had raised that amount, it would make the front page of every newspaper! In general, the fundraising amounts in Latin America are still very low compared to Asia.
The distance between Latin America and Asia does not help either. For me, personally, I cannot even fly to Singapore from Uruguay on a direct flight; I have to have a layover at Qatar. When I tell my friends or family that I am living in Singapore, it seems almost unbelievable to them.
There is also a general lack of awareness from both sides. When I spoke to a couple of investors in Singapore, I told them that I had customers in Latin America, and they told me they did not know anything about the region because it was so far away. It was not that they had a negative perception, they did not know enough to even form a perception. It is the same in Latin America, very few people know how things work in Asia.
But I definitely think there are so many opportunities for cross-border collaborations between the two regions.
To end on a personal note, now that Chipsafer is based in Singapore but working with clients in Latin America and Australia, how do you deal with the time difference with the hectic schedule of a start-up CEO?
I generally stay up until 3 AM every day. I do request all calls to finish before 12 AM Singapore time because I find it difficult to sleep if I have to take a call later than that, even though I can continue working for another couple of hours after. To cope with the late nights, I often take a nap in the afternoon after I return from the office. It can be challenging but I find this is what works for me. The pandemic has helped a little because many meetings are now done virtually.
The most important thing is to understand when your productive hours are, and to capitalize on them. If you are too tired to focus on a task, it is better to take a nap and refresh yourself instead of spending an hour struggling with a task that should only take ten minutes.