For most Americans, eggs matter a lot. In a year, an average American is estimated to eat almost 300 eggs (that’s either in the form of eggs by themselves or in egg-utilizing products like baked goods). We truly are living in what some researchers have called the Age of the Chicken—at least geologically, the humble poultry will be one of our civilization’s most notable leftovers.
To push back against supply chain issues, some households have taken the idea of farm to table a step further. Demand for backyard chickens rose both during the pandemic, and at the start of the year in response to inflation. But raising a flock can come with many unseen challenges and hassles. A new startup, Coop, is hatching at exactly the right time.
Coop was founded by AJ Forsyth and Jordan Barnes in 2021, and it packages all of the software essentials of a smart home into a backyard chicken coop.
Barnes says that she can’t resist an opportunity to use a chicken pun; it’s peppered into the copy on their website, as well as the name for their products, and is even baked into her title at the company (CMO, she notes, stands for chief marketing officer, but also chicken marketing officer). She and co-founder Forsyth invited Popular Science to a rooftop patio on the Upper East side to see a fully set up Coop and have a “chick-chat” about the company’s tech.
In addition to spending the time to get to know the chickens, they’ve spent 10,000 plus hours on the design of the Coop. Fred Bould, who had previously worked on Google’s Nest products, helped them conceptualize the Coop of the future.
The company’s headquarters in Austin has around 30 chickens, and both Barnes and Forsyth keep chickens at home, too. In the time that they’ve spent with the birds, they’ve learned a lot about them, and have both become “chicken people.”
An average chicken will lay about five eggs a week, based on weather conditions and their ranking in the pecking order. The top of the pecking order gets more food, so they tend to lay more eggs. “They won’t break rank on anything. Pecking order is set,” says Barnes.
Besides laying eggs, chickens can be used for composting dinner scraps. “Our chickens eat like queens. They’re having sushi, Thai food, gourmet pizza,” Barnes adds.
For the first generation smart Coop, which comes with a chicken house, a wire fence, lights that can be controlled remotely, and a set of cameras, all a potential owner needs to get things running on the ground are Wifi and about 100 square feet of grass. “Chickens tend to stick together. You want them to roam around and graze a little bit, but they don’t need sprawling plains to have amazing lives,” says Barnes. “We put a lot of thought into the hardware design and the ethos of the design. But it’s all infused with a very high level of chicken knowledge—the circumference of the roosting bars, the height of everything, the ventilation, how air flows through it.”
They spent four weeks designing a compostable, custom-fit poop tray because they learned through market research that cleaning the coop was one of the big barriers for people who wanted chickens but decided against getting them. And right before the Coop was supposed to go into production a few months ago, they halted it because they realized that the lower level bars on the wire cage were wide enough for a desperate raccoon to sneak their tiny paws through. They redesigned the bars with a much closer spacing.
The goal of the company is to create a tech ecosystem that makes raising chickens easy for the beginners and the “chicken-curious.” And currently, 56 percent of their customers have never raised chickens before, they say.
Key to the offering of Coop is its brain: an AI software named Albert Eggstein that can detect both the chickens and any potential predators that might be lurking around. “This is what makes the company valuable,” says Barnes. Not only can the camera pick up that there’s four chickens in the frame, but it can tell the chickens apart from one another. It uses these learnings to provide insights through an accompanying app, almost like what Amazon’s Ring does.
As seasoned chicken owners will tell newbies, being aware of predators is the name of the game. And Coop’s software can categorize nearby predators from muskrats to hawks to dogs with a 98-percent accuracy.
“We developed a ton of software on the cameras, we’re doing a bunch of computer vision work and machine learning on remote health monitoring and predator detection,” Forsyth says. “We can say, hey, raccoons detected outside, the automatic door is closed, all four chickens are safe.”
The system runs off of two cameras, one stationed outside in the run, and one stationed inside the roost. In the morning, the door to the roost is raised automatically 20 minutes after sunrise, and at night, a feature called nest mode can tell owners if all their chickens have come home to roost. The computer vision software is trained through a database of about 7 million images. There is also a sound detection software, which can infer chicken moods and behaviors through the pitch and pattern of their clucks, chirps, and alerts.
It can also condense the activity into weekly summary sheets, sending a note to chicken owners telling them that a raccoon has been a frequent visitor for the past three nights, for example. It can also alert owners to social events, like when eggs are ready to be collected.
A feature that the team created called “Cluck talk,” can measure the decibels of chicken sounds to make a general assessment about whether they are hungry, happy, broody (which is when they just want to sit on their eggs), or in danger.
There’s a lot of chicken-specific behaviors that they can build models around. “Probably in about 6 to 12 months we’re going to roll out remote health monitoring. So it’ll say, chicken Henrietta hasn’t drank water in the last six hours and is a little lethargic,” Forsyth explains. That will be part of a plan to develop and flesh out a telehealth offering that could connect owners with vets that they can communicate and share videos with.
The company started full-scale production of their first generation Coops last week. They’re manufacturing the structures in Ohio through a specialized process called rotomolding, which is similar to how Yeti coolers are made. They have 50 beta customers who have signed up to get Coops, and are offering an early-bird pricing of $1,995. Like Peloton and Nest, customers will also have to pay a monthly subscription fee of $19.95 for the app features like the AI tools. In addition to the Coops, the company also offers services like chicken-sitting (aptly named chicken Tenders).
For the second generation Coops, Forsyth and Barnes have been toying with new ideas. They’re definitely considering making a bigger version (the one right now can hold four to six chickens), or maybe one that comes with a water gun for deterring looming hawks. The chickens are sold separately.