Veterinary Innovation Challenge winner seeks to improve human-animal bond through technology

The inaugural Veterinary Innovation Challenge (VIC) finished strong in September, producing a winning team with a product that Nikhil Joshi, VIC executive director, said has the potential to "shake the industry."

SPEAK, a wearable pet technology created by UC Davis veterinary students Jamie Peisel and Katherine Watson, took first place. MyDVM took second place, and Toro Tech came in third.

The winning team took home a $10,000 prize, which will help Peisel and Watson to accelerate the development of their product.

Joshi explained what captivated competition judges about SPEAK and its creators.

"SPEAK stood out in the judges' minds as a business that could shake the industry," Joshi said. "Furthermore, the judges appreciated the professional design and the effective salesmanship of the team."

NEWStat gave SPEAK co-founder Jamie Peisel the chance to discuss her experience at the competition, details surrounding the product she developed, and her future plans for SPEAK.

Q. Please tell us more about your background and how it influenced you to enter the competition.

A. I grew up on the clay courts of Savannah, Ga., where I was the #1 tennis player in the country at age 12. I graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in psychology and began my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. As a third-year veterinary student at UC-Davis, I enjoy navigating the relationship with people through their relationship with their pets. It ties into our inspiration for SPEAK - we wanted to create a way to not only support but augment the human-animal bond while helping pets live longer, healthier lives. 

Q. What was the inspiration for your business idea?

A. As veterinary students, Kate Watson (my co-founder and chief technology officer) and I realized that it is important to reach out to pet parents about preventative health care. The Partners for Healthy Pets campaign is raising awareness about this important issue. We wanted to build upon this idea by promoting wellness and early disease detection by creating a 360-degree pet-care management system that not only tells you what your unique pet needs and when it needs it, but also rewards you for delivering that care.  

Q. Will you tell us more about SPEAK and how you envision it changing the human-animal bond?

A. SPEAK's smartphone app will help promote wellness by establishing pet care intervals. By providing care to their pets, pet parents earn points that can be redeemed for real world pet products provided by third-party advertisers. This provides two forms of reinforcement to help pet owners continue to provide optimal care: 1) the immediate reinforcement by earning points for their actions and 2) a tangible reinforcement when a goal is met strengthening their commitment to continued care.

In addition, the app will serve as a reminder system for when vaccinations and preventative care are due, while providing instructional videos to empower owners to follow through with prescribed treatments. Our digital display collar will communicate with WiFi or Bluetooth-enabled devices to update the pet parent on the animal’s location and their activity levels. With our pet care management system, pet owners will be able to communicate with their pets in a new way. They can even choose a "voice" for their pet if they feel inclined.  

Q. What did you enjoy about working in a team environment during the competition?

A. SPEAK was co-founded by myself and another third-year veterinary student, Katherine (Kate) Watson. Kate is part of the Veterinary Scientist Training Program (a dual DVM/Ph.D. program) at UC-Davis. She recently received her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular integrative physiology designing ultrasound targeted breast cancer chemotherapeutics. After graduation, Kate is planning on doing a residency in anatomic pathology to enhance her knowledge of disease pathogenesis so that she can continue to engineer non-invasive diagnostic and therapeutic modalities that advance both animal and human health.

Kate and I have a lot of fun together; it's great starting a business with a partner who complements your strengths. We joke that I bring the business (sense), she brings the brains.

Q. Why do you think the Veterinary Innovation Challenge is a worthwhile event for entrepreneurial veterinary students?

A. What we realized at the final presentations at the Veterinary Innovation Challenge is that veterinary students have many creative and inspirational ideas. The competition helped us to define our product and pushed us to move forward with our idea. Without this catalyst, we may have kicked around the idea without actually taking the steps necessary to bring it to market.  

Setting deadlines and goals to accomplish by those deadlines moves the business forward. We both grew tremendously as entrepreneurs through this experience. Not only have we been able to network with industry executives and entrepreneurs, but we crafted a pitch, refined our problem, defined our solution, and delved into market and financial analyses. 

Q. Describe your experience being around so many other veterinary students building business ideas and exercising their creativity.

A. I was able to meet one of the other finalists, Lindsay Gallagher, at the Veterinary Leadership Institute this past summer. It was so inspiring to meet another veterinary student with similar aspirations. That's what I love about the VBMA - the coming together of business-minded scientists! Our field is still unique in that we have the opportunity to be both business owners and practitioners. I attended the national symposium this past year in Orlando - the presentations were inspiring (one by one of the other mentors Mary Gardner on "How to Get Google to Notice You") and the enthusiasm from the other dedicated officer teams was contagious! I'm a firm believer in consolidating resources to make a larger impact. 

Q. What were some of the most valuable experiences you took away from working with your mentor during the competition?

A. The most difficult thing for us being new entrepreneurs and left-brained scientists, is that we're used to having a prescribed path to follow to accomplish our goals. There is no certainty when starting your own business. We've had to create that structure for ourselves. Having grown successful companies himself, our mentor Ben Lewis has given us the confidence to stop thinking and start doing.

Q. What are the next steps for you to keep SPEAK moving forward?

  • Wearable tech spec sheet for prototype development
  • Seek out investors/third-party advertisers
  • Solidify how data will be managed
  • Smartphone app beta testing
  • Video development in conjunction with the Community and Behavior Medicine Clinics at UC-Davis

Looking ahead to the second annual Veterinary Innovation Challenge 

To entrepreneurial veterinary students who did not enter the 2014 competition, Joshi recommended that they get started on developing an idea for the competition's second year.

"Submit your ideas! You don't have to be an expert in business or entrepreneurship," Joshi said. "You already know about some of the problems in veterinary medicine, pet parenting, livestock handling, etc. Your idea could be worth a lot of money and save a lot of animals' lives, so why not give it a shot?"

Visit the Veterinary Innovation Challenge website for more information about the 2014 competition, the eight finalists, and the event winners.