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Rich Shuler: 'Jury's out' on multiple competitors in animal health tech space


Sep 28, 2017 - Animal Pharm

By Joseph Harvey
Animal Pharm
September 28, 2017


Last month, Rich Shuler won the Iron Paw award for his achievements in the animal health sector. With a background of cultivating tech-based data companies in animal health, Mr Shuler is the perfect person to cast an eye over the fortunes of this burgeoning space. Animal Pharm editor Joseph Harvey spoke to him at the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor Investment Forum. 

When accepting his Iron Paw award, Rich Shuler, in addition to thanking his family, friends, teams and those that invested in his ideas, he said: "I want to thank all the people who forgave me when failures occurred – when I lost their money, struggled to make payroll, when the big idea didn't work out. Yes, I've lost people's money."

Animal Pharm asked if this statement was, in fact, true.

"Of course," Mr Shuler replied. "You always hear about the victors and never the failures. Sometimes the big idea didn't work or it took too long to get traction but I was always forgiven."

This allowed Mr Shuler to build a portfolio of success when it comes to creating animal health companies that are ahead of the curve. In 1994, he founded VetLife – a firm initially focused on non-antibiotic growth promoters for poultry. Again, in 2005, he helped found Ivy Natural Solutions. This firm developed non-antibiotic alternatives in the medicated feed sector long before the current trend towards these types of products.

Mr Shuler has also been involved in two notable data-driven ventures long before the recent influx of tech firms in animal health. He established AgSpan in 2000 to develop a database and information management service for the beef industry. The AgSpan technology was sold to Eli Lilly and is now part of Elanco Knowledge Solutions known as the Benchmark Performance Program.

AgSpan was originally one of the failures Mr Shuler mentioned. At first, the company stuttered before Mr Shuler decided to remodel it and re-position the technology.

"With all the consolidation in the animal health industry, a lot of smaller technologies get 'parked' or lost as companies get bigger, face higher earnings requirements, and focus on large dollar products and markets. Start-ups have more freedom to innovate."

Animal Pharm first met Mr Shuler in 2014 as he represented AgLogica (now known as Vetrax) – the developer of an on-animal sensor and cloud analytics platform. The firm recently launched its Vetrax pet wearable sensor, app and online portal to veterinarians in collaboration with Hill's Pet Nutrition.

Mr Shuler said AGL is going under the radar for a soft launch of its Vetrax technology. As well as delivering sales of its pet sensor, AGL is working with animal health companies to bring behavior analytics to research projects.

"There is mountains of data out there but much of it is not in a friendly format. You need to helicopter up and look at the data from above. Then you can spot the trends and connect different silos. It's a very simple thing but not a lot of companies are doing it."

"You have to take data, turn it into usable information and then provide knowledge."

Longevity of animal health tech businesses

So with this experience of bringing data-focused companies to fruition in animal health, does Mr Shuler think this area of the industry is here to stay?

"If you look at the companies presenting at this investment forum over the last five years, there are many now in the tech space with IT or sensors. You wouldn't have seen this five years ago."

He pointed the high amount of tech firms in animal health at the moment, particularly highlighting the "fatigue" around the 'FitBit in the human space where companies that were focused on just activity are now repositioning their model to focus on monitoring health conditions and trying to move from a nice to have wearable sensor to a 'must have' sensor.

Mr Shuler said: "The jury's out on a lot of these tech companies. The funding is still there but will all of these technologies be adopted?"

Views on innovation

"Investors will see some unusual things in this space," Mr Shuler told Animal Pharm. "Emerging technologies have got to be broad enough to provide value and allow for continued innovation but not so broad that users don't see how to apply the technology and establish a foothold in a space."

He said the big investment opportunities are clear with a pressing need to provide alternatives to antibiotics, address food safety issues and ensure the utilization of useful data sets.

"There are hardly any new animal health molecules, particular for food animals. If you look at many of the companies that are receiving funding they are often in vaccines, probiotics, prebiotics and enzymes. With all the consolidation in the animal health industry, a lot of smaller technologies get 'parked' or lost as companies get bigger, face higher earnings requirements, and focus on large dollar products and markets. Start-ups have more freedom to innovate."

While Mr Shuler thinks more animal health innovation is going to come to light from start-ups, he outlines a tricky path to commercialization for these firms. He believes the characteristics a young company needs are the quality of the technology, the people and the believability of what they are offering.

He also asked of start-ups: "Can you get enough seed money for proof-of-concept studies? For regulated technologies, can you get through the initial steps with the regulators to show a potential investor enough information that a technology is worthy of considering?"

Crucially, as with many good ideas, Mr Shuler stresses the importance of being one step ahead. In line with his ventures in the animal health space, he stated: "In the next five years, what spaces will still be of significance in animal health and what new spaces will emerge? You need to have that vision today to take risk and make a difference in these spaces." 

 Reprinted with permission of Animal Pharm News

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