Wearables may be on something of a downward hype wave right now when it comes to humans, but there’s one area where they haven’t even begun to get hot yet – animals.
The founders of Waterloo, Ont.-based startup SeeHorse believe they can equip equines with the same sort of biometric tracking sensors that people have been flocking to over the past few years.
Conestoga College marketing graduate Jessica Roberts and Peter Mankowski, a former researcher at BlackBerry, recently started taking pre-orders for SeeHorse—a phone-sized device that hooks onto a horse’s bridle.
Mankowski sat down to discuss the potential for equine wearables.
So what’s the idea with this device?
SeeHorse is a piece of electronics that is mounted on the horse’s bridle between the eye socket and the ear. It scans for temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate, then sends the data to your phone or to the cloud.
Horses are very fragile and they always get hurt. They’re a big investment for serious equestrian competitors. We provide them with this very simple means of scanning recovery from injury, when the horse is being transported, or when a mare is pregnant. You don’t know when labour and contractions can start, but this gadget can send you notifications about the early stages. Right now, you just have to hire someone to live with the horse.
It’s like a FitBit for horses?
I’m offended by that (laughs). The FitBit is a very primitive device that counts steps. We could build a FitBit over a weekend.
An Apple Watch for horses?
Yes, that’s better. What we do that nobody else does is temperature. We also don’t have a USB connector for recharging. We give you a recharging pad, so it’s wireless. That means it’s waterproof and dirt doesn’t get inside.
We also have kinetic energy harvesting, so my device can tune itself to the wearer’s motion and over time it will start collecting energy. That means longer battery life, and it’s green power. Some horse lovers don’t want to add to pollution so they buy our device. It won’t recharge the device entirely but it’ll prolong the battery.
What’s your estimated shipping date?
We promised everyone that by the latest, it’ll be a Christmas gift.
What are you charging for it?
There are three devices and the first one, a FitBit for horses, is $199.
That’s just a step counter?
Same thing. A step counter and calorie counter.
The next one in the middle adds vital signs and it’s $399. The most expensive, with the kinetic energy harvester, is the SeeHorse Green, which is $700 It comes with the charger and straps.
What sort of challenges did you face in the development?
We started with a logical set of features that we thought would be valuable to people, but we were proven wrong over and over again. GPS, for example. We spent countless months and resources integrating GPS chips thinking people would want to find their horses. Once we had it, we discovered no one cares.
I didn’t know why until I discovered that everyone in China is making GPS trackers for under $20. You want to track something? You go to any e-commerce site and it arrives at your door. I can’t touch that. My GPS price would be much higher.
The next set-back, with animals you have to look at the spectrum of what they look like. The type of fur, thickness of skin, colour – how on earth are you supposed to make electronics that will function well enough with such a spectrum of creatures?
We had to make a device that adjusts dynamically. When you put SeeHorse on the horse, at first it may not work very well but it will tune itself and over a week or so, you’ll see dramatic improvements in accuracy and performance. Our software understands what it needs to do to be more accurate. It’s like it learns itself.
Is it more difficult to read the vital signs of horses?
We don’t use sensors that are meant for phones, we use ones that originate in the automotive industry. Your BMWs, Audis and good expensive luxury cars have all those sensors built in. I want to be as accurate as possible, I don’t want to be a toy or a FitBit.
You have FitBit [at one end] and you have medical devices at the other, and all these other things in between. I’d like to be as close as possible to a medical device and this requires better accuracy.
Where is your funding coming from?
I found an ex-BlackBerry employee, one of the earliest, and I approached him and asked him if he would be interested in making a small investment in a startup. Three weeks later, he invited me to his house and he wrote me a cheque.
He was hesitant at first but we met at the stables [and talked] and that was basically my funding. Hopefully the pre-sales will be enough to attract institutional investors.
Are you finding that bigger investors are favouring certain kinds of startups? You’re more of a hardware-oriented company, so do they perhaps like software startups more?
In general, Canadian investors are very conservative and unwilling to take risks. They would rather wait and benefit from it by engaging with a company that has growing sales and has been around for six years and are a mid-sized business.
Getting initial funding represents a tremendous opportunity, but also a tremendous risk. Canadian [investors] aren’t ready for that. They’re missing the boat on many opportunities.
What’s the market opportunity for SeeHorse?
Yesterday, I went to the initial opening of the season at Angelstone in Erin, Ont., which is a very famous event for high-jump. I went with a few flyers and business cards and approached strangers at the bar, and yesterday alone I made $4,000.
The market is huge because a horse is a big investment. People who have horses usually have money. The market size in North America, based on research, is $40 billion, so it’s big.
What sorts of competitors are you facing?
I don’t know whether I should qualify them as competitors, allies or just people who do things in this space. One of them is Polar, which builds this belt that runners or joggers wear on their chest to scan their heart rate. Polar has been selling those human belts for horse lovers – you just get a longer belt – but I don’t know how much success they’ve had.
I have Polar myself and it’s amazing for humans, but it’s expensive at $700, hardly anyone can afford it. This is probably one of the companies that will enter this space with us, but people who have horses like to know they’re buying something that was designed for them. It’s kind of awkward that you would use it for running and then attach it to a horse.
There’s also the Stronach Group out of Aurora, Ont. It’s Frank and Belinda Stronach’s company. They do horse breeding, transportation and race tracks. With them being so dominant in the horse industry and having money, we have been hearing rumblings that they could be entering this market too.
Those two could either become our allies, our partners or our competitors.
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