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vHive head Alasdair Cook casts eye over digital tech in animal health

Next week, start-ups, investors and longstanding firms in the animal health sector will gather at the Digital Veterinary Summit in London. Animal Pharm analyst Sian Lazell spoke to Dr Alasdair Cook – head of the vHive innovation hub at the University of Surrey – to gain an overview of the digital technology space within the industry.

Sian Lazell: There are so many emerging technologies in animal health but what do you think is the most exciting type of technology being developed at the moment?

Alasdair Cook: The animal health arena is buzzing with new technologies – varying from innovative diagnostic testing and imaging, through to behavior and movement monitors and sensors for individual animals. These technologies provide new insights into the health of individual animals and contribute to the development of precision medicine, provided the output of these innovations has been validated and the data they create is actually used.

Among the tech becoming available for dogs, collar-mounted wearables that monitor movement, and hence enable different behaviors to be identified, offer great promise. Output may be used to monitor response to intervention – to analgesics for chronic osteoarthritis, for example – and to detect early signs of diseases as varied as otitis externa and diabetes mellitus. The promise that these will be cheap, robust, easy to use and deliver some valued insights on health to owners should see growing adoption.

SL: Do you think adoption of technology is slower or faster in either the pet or livestock sector? How do the two sectors compare and what do consumer attitudes look like in each?

AC: Livestock owners typically take pride in the health of the animals for which they are responsible and the productivity of these cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry etc. is directly associated with the profitability of the enterprise. Consequently, there is a financial driver to adopt technologies that monitor production and indicators of health – for example, rumination.

Therefore, adoption of proven technologies in livestock is more rapid and is a feature of precision farming. Furthermore, veterinarians engaged with livestock enterprises increasingly use data to inform their advice concerning herd health.

By contrast, most companion animals are considered to be healthy by their owners most of the time. Interventions that assist in diagnosis and treatment, whether laboratory tests or enhanced aids, are limited to the domain of the clinical veterinarian and there are fewer incentives to adopt and sustain use of technologies such as movement or behavior monitors.

However, there appears to be a latent and unsatisfied appetite among pet owners to learn more about their pets, especially when, for example, they are left alone. Another service is geo-location for lost, or even stolen, pets.

However, at present, problems such as short battery life and – especially for cats – the physical size of wearable technologies are apparent practical issues. 

Alasdair Cook: "At some time a tipping point when the value to all from data sharing and thus the realization of multi-source Big Data for artificial intelligence to benefit a community of stakeholders will, I believe, be reached." 

SL: What does a 'good' tech company look like in the animal health industry? And what does a 'bad' one look like?

AC: A good company is one that listens to customers and asks: 'What do they want?' Strong firms also have a clear vision for their business case. They've considered: What is the value from this tech? Who benefits? Who will pay? 

A poor tech company is characterized by the 'I know people want this, I've spent years in creating it and as soon as it's perfect I'll release it to the world – but meanwhile it's my secret' attitude.

SL: What are the three main challenges facing the digital technology space in animal health? How can they be overcome?

AC: Understanding consumer need and creating demand; crossing the valley of death between great ideas and a feasible business; and proving value to customers – both veterinarians and animal owners.

SL: Which sector in animal health do you think will benefit the most from digital solutions over the next 5-10 years and how? Has anyone cracked how to use Big Data yet?

AC: No! There are a variety of limited use cases but these have not yet achieved widespread impact or commercialization. There is a multiplicity of barriers, including concerns about confidentiality, global data protection requirements, security and the consideration that people think 'my data are mine – they're very valuable and I won't share them', whilst actually being unable to release this value themselves.

However, at some time a tipping point when the value to all from data sharing and thus the realization of multi-source Big Data for artificial intelligence to benefit a community of stakeholders will, I believe, be reached.

SL: Finally, how has the animal health tech landscape changed since 2015 when things really started gaining pace?

AC: Many more parties are involved, there's much more interest, many initiatives – but we're still struggling on the nursery slopes.

Dr Cook is a veterinary epidemiologist with over 25 years national and international experience in livestock animal health in government, academic and R&D environments. He is head of the department of veterinary epidemiology and public health at the University of Surrey and leads the vHive innovation hub located at the institute. vHive was established in 2016 to foster the adoption and development of new digital technologies in animal health.

Dr Cook is a speaker at the Digital Veterinary Summit, which will be held in London, UK from October 9-10. The summit will feature 12 presenting digital technology start-ups, in addition to a wide range of established animal health firms, investors and other industry partners.

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