One of the toughest parts of being a veterinarian is dealing with a patient who can't talk about his symptoms. Instead, it's up to pet owners to detect whether their dogs seem sick or sluggish and get them to the vet. Too often, though, those subtle warning signs come far too late to save the pet's life.
Ben Jacobs, CEO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based start-up Whistle, believes his company will change that. Whistle's flagship product, which launches Wednesday, is a small device that attaches to any dog collar and connects to a mobile app, which tracks how much rest and activity the dog is getting throughout the day. Over time, it generates a baseline of activity for that dog, specifically, and alerts dog owners to any drops in activity that might indicate a problem. Whistle then generates a health summary to inform vets about the dog's history.
"When you talk to vets, they often say that parents come in, and it seems like sort of a sudden onset medical issue, but the vet has no idea when the pain really started," says Jacobs. "Our goal is to alert you early."
Jacobs says he spent years dreaming up a product like this, motivated in part by the fact that his own German shepherd died from an intestinal issue when he was only five. It wasn't until Jacobs graduated from Yale and began working on the Petsmart account at Bain & Company, however, that he realized just how big the pet care market actually is. The American Pet Products Association estimates that in 2013, Americans will spend $55.5 billion on their pets, with $14.2 billion of that going to vet care.
After leaving Bain, Jacobs became an entrepreneur in residence at the San Francisco-based investment firm DCM Partners, where he began developing the idea for Whistle, before officially starting the company with co-founders Steven Eidelman and Kevin Lloyd in 2012.
Since then, Whistle has grown to 20 employees and raised $6 million from investors, including DCM and 25 other individual investors across the tech, retail, and pet space. "Whistle's a pet company first and foremost, so we wanted to have pet DNA in the room," Jacobs says. Among Whistle's investors are the likes of Bob Gamgort, the former CEO of Mars Pet Care, as well as Carol Novello, president of the Humane Society Silicon Valley. The year-old start-up has also accrued an impressive advisory council of veterinarians, including Dr. Jeff Werber of Century Veterinary Group, who has been practicing veterinary medicine for 30 years.
"The best way to treat a disease is to try to prevent it," says Dr. Werber. "Having a product like this that can give me a window into the dog's activity beyond the few hours that the owner is home, is priceless."
Dr. Werber also anticipates Whistle will help vets address the awkward topic of obesity, which affects more than half of dogs and cats in the U.S. The trouble with that diagnosis is that, more often than not, obese pets belong to obese owners.
"The vet always fears that the client knows they're being spoken to, as well," he says. "It’s uncomfortable. This takes the conversation from the emotional to the scientific."
Whistle has also partnered with the University of Pennsylvania's Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center to test the efficacy of things like flea medication or the relationship between diabetes and lack of sleep in dogs. "Typically, they'd have nurses monitor the dogs in small pen environments," Jacobs says. "By piggybacking on those studies, we're answering their questions with data for the first time."
The first product retails for $99.95, giving Jacobs one advantage many of his Silicon Valley counterparts today don't have: Namely, he'll begin generating revenue on day one. If all goes well, Jacobs says he hopes to develop products for other animals, as well. Of course, that sales process will involve getting the vet community to advocate for the product, which is one reason why Jacobs says he plans on rolling out more products in the future aimed directly at the vet community. For now, Whistle primarily measures physical activity and rest, but Jacobs says future versions may offer more granular information, as well, like data on how much a dog is eating or whether he's been scratching. Jacobs says he's also looking for ways to marry the medical records data vets already have with the real-time data Whistle collects.
"Because the consumer and vet interests are aligned right now, we're creating products to help both, but a lot of vets would like to delve even deeper into this information," Jacobs says. "We can definitely see this growing into different lines of business to help vets."