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Zoetis puts farmers and vets at the center of its digital technology strategy

Animal Pharm editor Joseph Harvey spoke to Zoetis' Rob Kelly at the recent Digital Veterinary Summit in London to find out the company's view on animal health's rapidly-changing relationship with technology in both the livestock and companion animal sectors.

While it is around one year since Zoetis purchased digital ear tag specialist Smartbow, the company has been dealing with digital technology for several decades.

Zoetis' Clarifide product line for genetic evaluation of dairy cows provided the company with its first insight into managing technology and how data can transform animal health. It now carries out millions of Clarifide-based tests each year and has amassed a substantial amount of Big Data.

"Digital technology is actually something we've been looking at for some time now," Rob Kelly – the company's president of international operations – told Animal Pharm. "We've been managing data on dairy farms as a company for around 20 years in the US. Cloud-based technology and the amount of data we can transfer via 5G is rapidly changing that space.

"It's been a learning curve for us. Although we've been evaluating a lot of different digital technologies, we really don't think about this space from a technology point-of-view. We ask ourselves: 'What problems do our customers have?' If digital technology is the right answer, then we look at how we can use it to solve the problem."

In the livestock space, more consolidation of farms and lack of access to skilled labor is driving a customer need for increased technification.

"I think the fastest-growing area in digital tech and the one that is going to be the most disruptive over the next 10 years is the combination of artificial intelligence with diagnostics," Mr Kelly stated. "Artificial intelligence is now starting to create diagnostics tools that we can use cow-side and get instant information so a dairy farmer or a veterinarian can draw insights and turn it into immediate action."

He also said moving from herd-focused healthcare to individual animal care is a big focus for Zoetis. This change is being driven by regulatory pressures, both in terms of antibiotic usage and animal welfare.

While there is an increasing amount of new on-farm digital technologies being offered to livestock producers, Mr Kelly warned: "Lots of new technologies have some individual value but the challenge for a dairy farmer or a pig producer is the integration of this information to drive more value.

"We're really interested in the consolidation of information for our customers. There's a lot of tags, sensors and collars being used by farmers out there. They will want a single source of data."

While some farmers may see technology as a risk to their profession, Mr Kelly said most are receptive to change but only if it makes their business more effective. He pointed out other parts of the agricultural sector are more advanced technology-wise compared to the livestock space. Mr Kelly highlighted the changes firms such as Syngenta (crop protection) and John Deere (equipment) have offered other sectors.

Pet sector perspective

However, despite some farmers' tentativeness to adopt new technologies, Mr Kelly said the livestock space is more advanced than the veterinary portion.

"Vets are further behind," he told Animal Pharm. "There really is a changing veterinary dynamic, especially with the social engagement that is needed today. In the US, the vet industry has not been fast to react in positive way. Vets are trying to find a way to play catch-up. We've seen this happen in the US and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the rest of the world."

The undeniable influence of the online channel on the purchasing decisions of pet owners has been even more prominent. In a recent Packaged Facts poll, 24% of people surveyed claimed they have started to buy more pet products online – versus just 6% in 2012.

However, Mr Kelly reiterated Zoetis' long-term viewpoint: "The vet is still front and center of our thinking, and is crucial to the pet owner's decision-making process."

He acknowledged the struggle vets have against the convenience of e-commerce and suggested the profession should be asking itself: 'How do I make access to my expertise and my practice as good as Google?'

Rob Kelly: "The vet is still front and center of our thinking, and is crucial to the pet owner's decision-making process."

Mr Kelly said Zoetis' R&D digital technology pathway in the companion animal segment is focused on helping vets provide the optimum support for pet owners.

He also pointed out Zoetis itself has minimal contact with pet owners. However, where possible, the company is aiming to provide them with as much support regarding Zoetis products.

"Pet owners are expecting transparency from us," Mr Kelly remarked. "The info on products from a vet should be enough but consumers are always looking for more. This becomes more of a challenge when vets don't have the tools to communicate with the pet owner."

To overcome this obstacle, Zoetis reaches out to pet owners using various social media platforms around the world.

In addition, the company has established VetPost – a service it is overseeing in the UK. Zoetis is trialling this service for veterinary clinics to deliver the firm's products directly to pet owners' homes every month. The service for pet owners will be a yearly subscription allowing greater comfort for the owner and increased compliance for the dog.

Internal and external know-how

While Zoetis has a lot of R&D expertise in the veterinary and scientific areas, it is now looking for the help of data analysts and computer engineers to source new ideas – whether that be internally or via collaboration.

On the other hand, Zoetis also has commercial strength – a bonus for start-ups (such as Smartbow, which has been approved in Russia this year and is targeting an introduction to China in 2020) that have technological know-how but lack the ability to take their technology to a wider market.

As well as building external relationships (Zoetis also has ties with the UK's University of Surrey and its vHive innovation hub), Mr Kelly said the firm is also building its own internal digital technology group globally.

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