Cover image courtesy of Bronwen Healy
Five years ago, Dr Michael Hurley and his team at Epona Biotec set out to answer a simple question, 'Is my horse sick?' With an innovative approach to technology and veterinary science, they feel they have taken a giant leap in answering that question with their recently launched VetTrue System.
In a 30-year career working as an equine vet, Dr Hurley has diagnosed his fair share of sick horses but it was in his 12-year spell with the Hong Kong Jockey Club that he became acutely aware of the dangers of shipping fever.
Horses would regularly arrive in Hong Kong after long plane journeys and Hurley, as Deputy Head of the Veterinary Clinical Services Department at the Jockey Club, would be called upon to treat horses which had become sick through their journeys.
"Shipping fever is one of those conditions that, it doesn't matter where in the world you are, you always see cases. It’s a big problem in the equine industry," he told TDN AusNZ from his base in Cambridge, New Zealand.
"Horses always fly into Hong Kong from overseas and the vets there were really conscious that many of these horses had been travelling for more than 24 hours and were at a high risk of getting shipping fever.
"The vets there (in Hong Kong) were always really conscious that many of these horses had been travelling for more than 24 hours and were at a high risk of getting shipping fever." - Dr Michael Hurley
"I did some research and we found that 60 per cent of flights coming into Hong Kong had at least one horse on board that had shipping fever. Overall, the rate was 10 per cent of horses that arrived."
What became apparent to Hurley was that the nature of travel and the nature of shipping fever meant these horses were not being treated until they arrived, often after the onset of the fever had taken hold. This was despite, in many instances, the highly professional grooms that had travelled with them, reporting that the horses had travelled well.
"It just struck me that at some point of the journey, these horses are getting sick. They don’t necessarily look sick, and there was no way of telling which ones are, especially when they are in jet stalls and there is no easy way of taking their temperatures," he said.
"It just struck me that at some point of the journey, these horses are getting sick. They don’t necessarily look sick, and there was no way of telling which ones are." - Dr Michael Hurley
"We wanted to find a solution that was safe and easy for the flying grooms, because it’s just too dangerous and impractical trying to take temperatures on an aircraft."
Coming up with the concept of the idea was relatively straightforward. Hurley wanted to develop a mobile app that allowed remote monitoring of a horse's temperature, but the application of that solution was somewhat more complex.
Hurley admits the idea itself is by no means a new one, and a lot of people he runs into in the equine veterinary industry tell him they had a similar concept in mind at some stage.
But the difference for Hurley was, he actually found a solution. It might have taken five years of innovation, trial and development, but he can say that his company got it over the line.
A meeting of minds
The moment the idea really took flight was in 2015, when a conversation with design architect Adrian Poon in Hong Kong set the wheels in motion for the formation of Epona Biotec.
"Adrian had done a lot of tech start-up work before. When we got together, he came to me and asked how I thought that in an era of greater connectivity, technology could be used to monitor the health of horses," he said.
"My answer to him was that the most obvious thing was to develop a device that could read temperature. Based on that, we got together and formed a company and applied for the funding and the rest is history."
The funding was through a program called Cyberport, which offered support for entrepreneurs and start-ups. It supported the design of the product, which was all important to its effectiveness.
Key to the design was how the temperature would be measured.
"We came up with the concept of monitoring the temperature under the tail. It is based on the same principle of taking a human's temperature under their arm," Hurley said.
"It turns out the temperature under the tail is very similar to the rectal temperature. We knew that would work, so it was a matter of developing a system that was simple and intuitive to use."
Through various trials, Epona Biotec found that the most straightforward and simple way was to use an adhesive tab, which would attach under a horse's tail.
"Design engineers helped to make the electronics as small as possible. We also wanted to make them a single-use product, as after they have been on a sick horse they needed to be disposable,” Hurley said.
"Timing with technology worked in our favour. Suddenly, Bluetooth chips and the circuit boards were at a price where you could make them a single-use device."
The enlisting of a technology and software expert, Matt Craig, who is now Epona Biotec's CTO, was also an important milestone and he has overseen many of the technological innovations, including the iPhone application, which had been a key focus as well, in terms of promoting usability.
The company also enlisted the help of several companies in New Zealand and Hong Kong for research and development of aspects such as the circuit boards for the devices.
Throughout the journey, the VetTrue system has been rigorously tested, with the team at Epona Biotec receiving ongoing feedback from those in the equine industry who would be their everyday users.
"We have worked closely with trainer Stephen Marsh, who has been really good letting us trial it on his horses and I've got five acres here in Cambridge, with a few horses to trial it on as well," Hurley said.
The golden moment
While it took many years of hard work, research and innovation to bring the VetTrue System into reality, the golden moment for Hurley came when the connections of one of the world's best horses entrusted it to monitor the health of their star galloper on route to Australia.
"For us the biggest moment was seeing the VetTrue System used on William Haggas’ horse Addeybb, which came down from the UK to compete in the Queen Elizabeth S.," Hurley said.
"Des Leadon is a specialist equine vet from Ireland and he has been involved in shipping fever research for many years. He often flies with these high-profile horses and he's been a great supporter of our product because he knows how useful monitoring a horse’s temperature is.
"He (Des Leadon) used it on the flight with Addeybb from the UK to Australia and he was able to show that the horse's temperature was normal all the way down." - Dr Michael Hurley
"He used it on the flight with Addeybb from the UK to Australia and he was able to show that the horse's temperature was normal all the way down. When you have a horse of that calibre, it just gives you great re-assurance that everything is going well.
"For us to have one of the highest-rated horses in the world, being monitored with our product during its flight, and to win a Group 1 race in Australia, was a great moment for us."
What has followed is the VetTrue System launching to the open market, where it has been well received in a variety of contexts in order to detect shipping fever, and not just in racehorses but in yearlings and equestrian horses as well.
"It’s also proven very useful for vets who are treating a sick horse. When they put one on, they come back the next day and they can simply download all the temperature data and see how a horse is responding to treatment," Hurley said.
"It's also being used in equine hospitals, for monitoring horses post-surgery, in universities for research projects, and on stud farms to predict the time of foaling."
The response to the product has been global, with orders from all over the world.
Gallery: The VetTrue System and iPhone App | Images courtesy of VetTrue Epona Biotec
The next vision
Hurley and the team at Epona Biotec are far from finished in terms of the evolution of their product.
That very simple question, 'Is my horse sick?', is driving every step of Epona Biotec's innovation and continues to act as a guiding light as to where they take their products going forward.
"We have a whole range of products to roll out. Temperature was where we started off and our goal was to perfect that with the app," he said. "The next thing we will add in is a heart rate monitor, so straight away we can get those readings in real time. That's quite useful.
"The next thing we will add in is a heart rate monitor, so straight away we can get those readings in real time. That's quite useful." - Dr Michael Hurley
"After we have done the heart rate monitor, we have a patent to include biosensors, to read biomarkers in the subcutaneous tissue.
"It’s quite advanced technology but it’s currently possible with humans for glucose. Diabetics can use a special patch on their arms with sensors to measure the glucose in their system. We have a patent to do that with horse biomarkers.
"It will take a great deal more research and development, but eventually we want to have these disposable sensors that you can stick on a horse that can measure the temperature, the pulse and it can measure anything else you want to program into the chip. It might be useful for measuring inflammatory proteins, which would be a great tool, in addition to temperature, for monitoring a horse’s response to treatment.”
Spreading the word
For now, the focus is on ensuring that as many people as possible get the opportunity to use the VetTrue System.
"Our objective is to get our product into people's hands. Once we’ve done that we know they'll be impressed," Hurley said.
"Transporting horses is a massive industry and shipping fever is a welfare issue with horses travelling long distances. What we would love to see, in the future, is the monitoring of temperature become an industry standard. If you are transporting a horse a long distance, then you have this insurance policy because you will know your horse is in good health.
"I think what we are most proud of is taking a basic clinical parameter and making the information available in real-time. It’s just the temperature, but it is so useful.
"No-one has done this before and although I had a lot of people tell me 'that was my idea', getting out there and getting it designed and manufactured is the hard part and we have done that."