Pet tech: Wearables aren't just for humans anymore
Whether it's staying plugged in via mobile devices or tracking activity with wearable electronics, consumers are always chasing the latest way to stay connected.
And while humans have plenty of social networks, apps and gadgets, a growing number of entrepreneurs are betting that the same sorts of technology will be big business in the pet market, which is expected to reach $62 billion this year.
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"Pet technology is still well below the radar screen, but it has huge upside potential," said Scott Miller, CEO of Dragon Innovations, a consulting firm that works with start-ups and entrepreneurs to get their products made. "The pet industry is totally old school. ... It's ripe for disruption. It's still pretty early in the trend, but ... there will be a big uptick in the next year."
One area gaining traction in the pet industry: wearable activity trackers.
"Think of it as a Nike FuelBand for your dog," said Arie Abecassis, a data scientist at FitBark, a New York-based start-up that makes an activity tracker for dogs. "People are getting into the wearable trend ... and we think it's only a matter of time on the pet side as well."
The FitBark device attaches to a collar and collects data on the dog's activity levels throughout the day. The data syncs to the FitBark application, so owners can check in whenever they want.
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FitBark launched on Kickstarter at the end of July and reached its goal in just 27 hours. The product has had strong international response, with people drawn to it partly because it gives them a sense of always being connected to their companion animal, according to FitBark co-founder Michael Chiang.
But monitoring devices like FitBark can also serve as a form of preventive health care.
Trends seen in the data over a period of time can help the owner spot when something's wrong, said Ben Jacobs, the CEO of Whistle, a San Francisco-based start-up that also makes a canine activity tracker.
Owners often can't tell immediately if their dog has a health condition because pets tend to hide pain or discomfort when they are around humans, Jacobs said. But if people can look at a chart and see that, for instance, their pet's activity is declining, they're more likely to uncover a problem earlier, he said.
The data also present an interesting business opportunity, Abecassis said.
"We are really all about big data ultimately—the value of the data to consumers and the industry, he said.
Though the business models are still being worked out, both FitBark and Whistle see opportunities in using collected data to profit in both the consumer and enterprise space.
Part of the Boston-based incubator Bolt, PetNet also stresses the importance of data in its business. PetNet founder Carlos Herrera was building unmanned aerial vehicles for government agencies but said he moved into pet innovation because he saw huge potential for technological improvement—and profits.
"We saw that pets were being sort of neglected," he said. "They don't have any cool technology. ... So we decided to start exploring different solutions to help with the biggest pet expenditure, which is food."
The start-up's Pintofeed, controlled via mobile application, collects data about feeding frequency and volume eaten. PetNet's plan is to roll out a family of interactive appliances—for example, a collar that counts calories and communicates that information with Pintofeed to provide food based on a dog's activity level.
Pintofeed also gathers data about owners based on their location, Herrara said, adding that all collected data can be used to help market pet-related products.
Such information could help marketers better target consumers with specific products that suit their animal and promote products at appropriate times, such as when an owner is near the pet store.
PetNet also has its sights set on veterinarians.
"The vet industry is very fragmented space. ... Nobody is using the same software or back-end tool of operation to manage records," Herrera said. "We want to collect intelligent records for vets so they can always see the levels of activity and consumption habits, and have access to prescribed medicines."
Over the next three years, PetNet plans to roll out an ecosystem of devices to monitor pet vitals, in addition to software for vets.
That system will follow the pet's health in real-time and break down long-term trends so that the vet and owner can be alerted when something is abnormal. It will also alert the vet to any contraindicated medications.
—By CNBC's Cadie Thompson. Follow her on Twitter @CadieThompson