Sarah Last is the co-founder and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of a company called MimicTec.
Sarah says that she was a fairly ordinary student in primary school and in lower secondary school.
About half way through year 9, I started really getting into science and I think it was because I realised that science was all about answering questions related to the natural world.
In Year 12, Sarah studied Maths Methods, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and English.
When she was at school, Sarah thought that she wanted to be a veterinary scientist.
In year 10, one of my teachers pushed for me to study VCE biology a year early and I’ve never looked back.
As a general rule, the people who have been the most supportive are the people who have never stopped listening to my questions.
University and first job
After high school, Sarah knew she wanted to do something related to science, something with animals and something to do with agriculture. The natural choice at the time was veterinary medicine so after taking a year off study, she started her undergraduate degree in science.
She then began postgraduate study in Veterinary Medicine but realised that there were other options available. She stopped her vet degree and instead studied a Masters in Entrepreneurship and started a company called MimicTec.
Sarah’s first job was working at the racetrack stables in the mornings as a groom.
Sarah’s advice to students
Sarah says that agriculture is a great industry for a career path, there will always be a job for you and there is so much scope to move around in the sector.
It’s important to spend time learning who you are and what drives you. Spend time learning what’s on offer and what’s out there and ask the people around you for their input and opinions.
Finally, don’t be afraid to change the goal as you learn more about the world.
I think it’s important to have a goal, to work hard but also be open to what you learn along the way.
I think it's important to have a goal, to work hard but also be open to what you learn along the way.
Sarah says that the key personal attributes and skills that have contributed to her success are:
- good communication skills
- willingness to learn
- curiosity, I’m curious and like learning about how things work which makes me good at asking questions and engaging people in this space
- having a sense of humour
- knowing who you are and what drives you
- believing in yourself and sometimes ignoring when someone says it won’t work.
Incredible things happen when a diverse group of people who have studied a diverse range of topics come together to solve a problem and more often than not science, technology, engineering and mathematics are at the heart of the solution.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
When Sarah started in veterinary medicine she realised that she didn’t just want to help sick animals, she wanted to make the lives of healthy animals even better.
Sarah had also had some experience working with exotic birds and she knew that animals do best when you put them in an environment that most closely mimics their natural setting. With this in mind, along with her experience with birds, she started a project where she invented a robotic device to artificially mimic the maternal care of poultry. Her aim was to see if young chicks would respond to her fake mother hen the way they would a real mother hen.
Sarah’s theory was that baby chicks do better when they are reared by a mother hen, but real mother hens can’t be used on chicken farms for important animal health reasons. She wanted to build a device to look after chicks when they were young so that they would get the best start to life.
To my surprise the device worked, the chicks treated my robot as they would a mother hen. Even more interestingly, the birds grew better and had better welfare outcomes.
From there she started talking to interested farmers and realised that she might be able to apply her idea to commercial farms. Sarah’s cofounder, Ele Toulmin, joined the team and they started MimicTec.
Sarah’s current job
As part of developing her business, Sarah talks to lots of different people in the poultry industry to see how the product is going to interact with the systems they have and the jobs they have to do. For example, she needs to make sure that their product doesn’t stop the farmer from regularly checking on the chicks in the shed or potentially trip anyone up in the shed while they are working.
When Sarah gets their feedback, she can incorporate it into the product design. She takes what she has learnt from the farmers and explain it to the engineering team.
I build prototypes. We work with excellent engineers who make our product more durable and reliable but the first, second and third time a feature is developed I build it myself. This way I get a better understanding of exactly what is required and how it will need to be put together.
Sarah chose to work in this area because she loves the agriculture sector and the farmers are innovative and hardworking. They’re willing to listen to new ideas and will offer honest and thoughtful feedback. Moreover, food is the backbone to human health and so contributing to a thriving agriculture sector means she can positively impact on the health of our country.
What gets me out of bed in the morning is being able to offer another perspective on how we can improve the welfare of our agricultural species.
STEM at work
Our units are primarily mechanically driven however, the algorithm that drives them is all code that I wrote. An understanding of digital technologies therefore has been vital.
In saying that, prior to starting MimicTec, I had little to no experience coding (my background being much more in the biological sciences) but learnt everything I needed for the job on Google. From a business perspective our whole company is cloud based, this means we can keep the business paperless and work remotely if we need to, which is very convenient.