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AGL developing new animal monitoring technology innovations and partnerships

US firm AGL has been working in the digital technology space since 2014, long before many recent newcomers arrived on the scene. Animal Pharm editor Joseph Harvey spoke to the company's co-founder, president and chief executive Marcel Sarzen to find out AGL's present game plan.

Two partnerships are key to the history and future of AGL – a business specializing in combining sensors, cloud computing and artificial intelligence in the animal production, health and nutrition world.

The first important partnership was with Hill's Pet Nutrition, which signed a strategic alliance with AGL to develop and optimize the latter's Vetrax animal behavior monitoring technology in 2015. AGL then launched Vetrax to veterinarians in collaboration with Hill's in 2017.

Vetrax is a smart wearable device – developed via an exclusive technology licensing affiliation with the Georgia Institute of Technology – designed to be attached to a dog's collar. It uses a sensor to consistently monitor behavioral patterns and pet activity. Data collected by the Vetrax Sensor is then stored and accessible to veterinarians and owners online through the Vetrax Portal and Vetrax App, respectively.

Mr Sarzen told Animal Pharm: "AGL developed significant knowledge capital in our development of the Vetrax animal behavior monitoring solution. We were early in the game. Hill's was a great partner for us. They introduced the technology into veterinary practices."

The Vetrax technology was deployed to over 600 veterinary clinics and involved in numerous clinical trials of animal health products and diets. The relationship with Hill's culminated in the acquisition of the Vetrax technology platform last year. AGL licensed back rights to the Vetrax technology platform and will continue to market the Vetrax brand for use with animal health products companies, including clinical research and providing clinical proof-of-effect to support marketing of animal health products.

Mr Sarzen said: "AGL is currently doing clinical trial work with leading animal health companies that are using Vetrax to quantify companion animal behaviors and highlight product efficacy in areas such as atopic dermatitis and otitis externa."

He suggested the technology could also be used to quantify other conditions, including – but not limited to – seizures, anxiety and pain. These are all areas where AGL is working to secure animal health company partners.

Marcel Sarzen: "Mixing IBM Watson's capabilities with AGL's animal behavior analytics and subject matter expertise provides a great opportunity to bring innovation and value to the animal production, health and nutrition segment." 

Mr Sarzen said he wants Vetrax to be available as a value-added option through agreements with animal health companies, whereby an animal health treatment and Vetrax are offered at the same time to veterinarians and pet owners. The Vetrax value-added service would provide a differentiated offering for a new product launch entering a competitive market segment, by helping to provide evidence of products' effects.

He explained: "The Vetrax technology was designed to be veterinary-relevant by providing a 'voice' for the pet, communicating derma, otitis, mobility, pain etc to the veterinary health team and pet parent.

"The veterinary community is a challenging sector to add new technology into directly. My learnings with Vetrax have only provided me greater respect for the veterinary healthcare teams. Vets have a very tight schedule on delivering services and value to their client. We need to make the technology frictionless for them to use. We've learned a lot working with the healthcare teams. You can only have so many websites and technologies for vets but how do make it painless for them to actually get in there and use them?"

IBM relationship opens door to food animal opportunities

The second key alliance for AGL is with IBM Watson – a collaboration struck this year after IBM noticed the Hill's deal for the Vetrax technology. The two firms are collaboratively working on solutions based on the Internet of Things (IoT) in food-producing animals.

Mr Sarzen said: "IBM Watson has long been recognized and trusted for best in class solutions in the artificial intelligence space. The IBM Watson IoT platform incorporates video, acoustic and other sensors solutions with its artificial intelligence technology.

"Our focus is applying these technologies in the animal production, health and nutrition space. We're using video and sound data to build new behavioral algorithms that address multiple issues in food animal production. We're taking everything we learned through Vetrax and merging it with IBM's technology platform."

The first IBM project sees AGL working with an undisclosed university that specializes in animal behavior to develop an artificial intelligence solution that collects and performs analytics on poultry vocalizations. The firm's objective is to be able to quantify welfare, sickness, anxiety and other traits. Once these behaviors are quantified, AGL intends to enable early interventions and/or environmental management that can address the underlying health or production issues.

Preliminary results from the first project in poultry should emerge before the end of the year, according to Mr Sarzen. The firm is working with veterinary experts, who are guiding projects and providing guidance on the species to target.

Mr Sarzen explained: "Mixing IBM Watson's capabilities with AGL's animal behavior analytics and subject matter expertise provides a great opportunity to bring innovation and value to the animal production, health and nutrition segment."  

He also noted the animal production, health and nutrition space is hungry for new solutions that can help producers be more productive and enable their businesses to have market differentiation – some of these solutions are digital. However, he also said it is important for digital technologies to provide a healthy return-on-investment for producers – something AGL is focusing on as part of the IBM set-up.

Aside from improving health and nutrition, Mr Sarzen suggested video and acoustic technologies combined with artificial intelligence insight could improve surveillance, as well as have a direct positive effect on animal welfare and worker compliance or safety at food animal production sites.

Investment round sought

AGL will start looking to snare series B funding at the beginning of 2020 to take its projects to the next step.

The company secured a series A in 2015, while the sale of its Vetrax technology platform to Hill's also gave it an investment boost.

With the animal health sector witnessing an increasing amount of companies securing financing in the digital technology area, what aspect of AGL sets it apart from other firms in this space?

"The AGL founders and leadership team have been delivering innovation and value in the animal health and analytics space for over 50 years," Mr Sarzen told Animal Pharm. "AGL's knowledge of this space, successful experience with the Vetrax platform and partnership with IBM Watson sets a solid, proven team for delivering artificial intelligence solutions in the animal production, health and nutrition space."

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