Collaboration will help this company save pets & vets around the world

SOURCE: Nexus Leeds
(L to R) Vet-AI co-founders Sarah Warren, Paul Hallett and Robert Dawson & chief data scientist Trevor Hardcastle.

By U2B Staff 

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No longer a pie in the sky technology, artificial intelligence (AI) is taking industries by storm. 

According to Research & Markets, the global AI market will reach US$74 billion by 2024, with a CAGR of 26 percent from 2019 to 2024. The growth potential of the technology is massive, driven by increasing demand for virtual assistance to solve complex human problems and improve human lives.

From food, healthcare, retail and security to automotive, agriculture, manufacturing, fintech and beyond, scientists and companies around the world are working at feverish pace to develop AI solutions that will increase productivity in each of these sectors.

But how much of this amazing technology is being harnessed to protect animal health and wellbeing? Not nearly enough.

Vet-AI, a budding AI startup based in the city of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, is changing the narrative. 

And with the power of collaboration, it will revolutionise a sector where technological advancements have more often than not been about improving the human experience: pet healthcare.

A world-first

Vet-AI was founded in 2017 by tech expert Paul Hallett, experienced veterinarian, Robert Dawson and veterinary dermatologist, Sarah Warren.

The trio had one mission: to overhaul pet healthcare. They wanted to plug gaps in the pet care product market, noticing how despite growing pet ownership, R&D in tech-driven solutions to improve pet health and wellbeing have been lacking.

“I became aware of the increase in technology-based human healthcare providers, such as Push Doctor, and believed the principles behind the technology would also work for veterinary care.

“Many pet owners find vet costs too high and struggle to physically get to a vet practice – the business is first and foremost addressing these animal welfare issues,” Hallett told Prolific North in an interview earlier this year.

Many pet owners find vet costs too high. Source: Shutterstock

Research shows the global pet care market will hit US$202.6 billion by 2025, thanks to the increasing popularity of pet adoption and growing demand for premium care products.

Advancements in the space, however, have concentrated on solutions built around human convenience and entertainment, such as wearables and apps to monitor pet health habits, track movements, nutritional intake and playtime, as well as pet cameras and automated feeders.

Technological improvements to veterinary care, on the other hand, have been few and far between.

Enter Vet-AI, the world’s first company to build AI-driven solutions that benefit both pets and their owners, and the vets that care for them.

A chance to fix a pernicious and pervasive problem

Dr Trevor Hardcastle is Vet-AI’s chief data scientist. An award-winning computational physicist, Hardcastle left academia in 2017 to join the AI revolution, and find a stable career.

More driven and commercially-aware than the average academic, Hardcastle had come to realise the AI revolution wouldn’t be unraveling in a lab somewhere, even if it does start in one. 

He wanted to be a part of it, and knew that spending his time chasing academic kudos in a lab coat wasn’t going to work. 

So in late 2017, he bit the bullet and left. His timing, as it turned out, couldn’t be more perfect.

As Hardcastle was leaving academia, Hallett was pulling a team together to get Vet-AI off the ground. The duo connected over LinkedIn, met for an hour over coffee to discuss the venture and in April 2018, became colleagues.

In Hardcastle’s own words, what Hallett had to say “completely wowed” him. It wasn’t that Vet-AI was blazing its own trail in the AI revolution–as a relatively nascent technology, any new AI venture comes with promises of grandiosity, scale and global significance.

What Hardcastle was sold on was the founding objective of Vet-AI; ie. problems in the veterinary world it hoped to solve: unaffordable pet care and a highly-stressed and overworked community of pet doctors.

Veterinarians are struggling with overwork and stress. Source: Vet-AI

Explaining this to U2B in an interview, Hardcastle says a largely corporatised animal health industry has rendered regular and high-quality pet care virtually unaffordable for owners. This has resulted in owners either googling their pet’s symptoms to come up with their own diagnoses or waiting until it was too late before seeking medical attention.

The second problem is an even more pernicious and pervasive one involving the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians.

“Vets are suffering,” Hardcastle says. “They’re not happy. Their work-life balance situation is very unfavourable. Their mental health is suffering.”

Hardcastle is sadly right, and there are studies that prove this. In the UK, the suicide rate among vets is four times the national average–and double that of doctors or dentists. According to research by the 24-hour Vetlife Helpline in 2017, at least 40 percent of vets have thought about suicide.

It’s a persistent problem caused by issues like overwork, limited financial returns and near-daily exposure to the emotional stress of euthanising animals. Yet it rarely gets included in the national discourse on mental health.

“Animals are suffering. Vets are suffering. And sadly, pet owners too are suffering,” Hardcastle says.

“That’s what drew me to Vet-AI. We had a chance to change an entire industry, revolutionise it for the better. It was too good an opportunity to miss.”

The Nexus connection

With a star-studded collaborative network of 20 PhD-level data scientists and technology programmers, including Hardcastle, former head of AI at push doctor Josh Sephton and OBE award-winning entrepreneur Jonathan Sands, Vet-AI got to work.

Hardcastle says the primary goal of Vet-AI, which is first and foremost a research and development company, is to build the largest and most reliable pet healthcare database on the planet. AI technology would then help the firm harness the data for insights, allowing it to create preventative intervention strategies.

The work getting there, however, would require research power and more than the combined expertise of Vet-AI’s founding team. To get his team access to a steady flow of academic resources, as well as state-of-the-art equipment, Hallett connected with Martin Stow, the director of Nexus Leeds, Leeds University’s brand-new £40 million enterprise center. 

“We were looking for access to leading academics. And we wanted them all to be situated in a central hub where we can collaborate,” Hardcastle explains.

Hallett’s conversation with Stow, reportedly the result of a serendipitous coffee-shop encounter, would later lead to Vet-AI setting up shop at Nexus.

The centre, built specifically to supercharge industry-academia collaboration, officially opened its doors this May, coinciding nicely with the launch of Vet-AI’s first product, Joii

Nexus Leeds launch
Nexus Leeds was officially launched this May. Source: Nexus Leeds

Joii is a consumer-facing advice app designed to save pet owners up to 60 percent on normal vet fees, with access to 70 percent of the normal services.

Using complex algorithms written by vets, the application is able to diagnose a pet’s symptoms and offer solutions on what action to take next, whether that means recommending a treatment, not taking any action, consulting a vet online or going to see one in person.

Hardcastle explains that through Joii, Vet-AI would be able to collect the data it needed for the next stage of the venture.

“Joii is the gateway,” he says. “The really, really valuable component of this entire venture–researching the data–comes next.”

Vet-AI’s move to Nexus, he adds, will provide the firm the impetus it needs for this next, most crucial stage of growth.

“If you’re working in a private company, there are times you’d need an academic expert… someone who’s maybe not very commercially minded but who really understands the mathematics of, say, a deep convolutional neural network or something.

“That’s often the bridge that’s missing between industry and academia. But being at Nexus changes that.”

The Nexus advantage

Despite only moving in recently, Vet-AI is already reaping the benefits of its Nexus outpost and proximity to the university’s cohort of leading-edge academics.

How? Hardcastle says it’s as simple as just being physically present in the building. 

“It’s just how Nexus is built; it provides a space where you can sit and have a coffee and talk to people,” he explains.

“It’s very much unlike the traditional university setting where it’s a long, dark corridor with rooms off at the side filled with shy academics who don’t come out to talk to people.”

Kitted out with Grade A offices for two to 50 people, wet and dry labs with write-up areas, meeting rooms for up to 18 people, multi-use seminar suites, exhibition and events spaces, and community break-out areas for networking, as well as a cafe for meals and relaxed meetings, Nexus Leeds was built with collaboration in mind. 

Nexus Leeds
Nexus Leeds was built to facilitate partnerships between industry and academia. Source: Nexus Leeds

A team of Relationship Managers is in charge of operations, and is responsible for creating the connections necessary to help the centre’s commercial partners solve key business challenges.

If a co-located firm at the centre needed access to academics, for example, the relationship managers would make the necessary introductions and facilitate the relationship. If they needed graduate students or interns, the team would help make the necessary arrangements.

It’s a symbiotic system that works because the business of collaboration is the business of the centre–its very success depends on how well these connections are able to prosper.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic building,” Hardcastle says. “You just feel psychologically very different walking in here… for example, every morning, I might sit down in the coffee area and strike up a conversation with a couple of professors… and it’s these kinds of spontaneous chats that lead to conversations about how we might be able to help each other.

“So it’s really about creating an environment where such collaborations can be conceived and begin to grow.”

One such collaboration to result from an interaction similar to what Hardcastle described is with David Hogg, a professor of AI at Leeds.

According to Hardcastle, in a recent chance encounter with Hogg at a Nexus-hosted event, he learned that the latter had written his PhD paper in the 80s studying human gait.

Immediately, Hardcastle realised Vet-AI could replicate the study on creatures like cats and dogs, using the insight to determine if the creatures were suffering from ailments like arthritis.

With Nexus’ help, an arrangement was made between Vet-AI and Hogg: Hogg connected the firm with two postdoctoral researchers and a statistician, and with his funding, the team, working under Hardcastle and Hogg’s supervision, is intending to develop a gait analysis tool that would be able to detect pet arthritis from five-second user videos.

“That’s an example of one of the collaborations that has resulted from us being in Nexus,” Hardcastle says. 

The relationship, he adds, is synergistic. Vet-AI benefits from getting access to experts like Hogg and his team, student interns, as well as use of Nexus’ leading-edge facilities.

On the flip side, their academic partners stand to gain from opportunities to publish more academic papers, whilst the students earn real-world experience from working with industry. And as a result of the two, the university burnishes its research and student employability credentials in the higher education space.

A brilliant future ahead

The launch of Joii and Vet-AI’s move to Nexus are just the beginning of a long and exciting journey ahead for the company.

Hardcastle says research on the data collected through the app and Vet-AI’s network of experts have only just begun. And with a fresh injection of funds, which Hardcastle says is expected to come soon, Vet-AI will be scaling up its research team, likely recruiting more help from Leeds’ academics and taking in students from across the university or outside. 

He noted that since rollout in May, Joii has already shown to be a hit. A simple Facebook campaign resulted in over 3,500 registered users and as at last count, the Joii website was receiving upwards of 100,000 daily views. 

“And that was just at launch. So it’s growing very, very fast.”

And with the support of the Nexus team, he said, growth will be seamless.

Vet-AI’s current team at Nexus is just six-member strong but Hardcastle says it won’t remain this way for long.

“Yes we have enough at six now but we expect we’ll be able to occupy the office of 18, and then maybe 30 later. There’s enough room within the Nexus building that allows for this grow-on space.”

And connections such as the one with Hogg, will only accelerate this growth, he adds.

“We just know that there’s going to be lots more like that,” he says.