Boulder County, like the rest of America, has a case of puppy (and to a lesser extent, kitty) love.
A recent national survey by the American Pet Products Association, a nonprofit trade association of pet product manufacturers and importers based in Stamford, Conn., suggests about 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 84.6 million homes. More than 60 percent of households own a dog.
A number of area businesses and companies have been seizing on people's love of pets, such as Only Natural Pet, Boulder Dog Food Co. and I and Love and You, which made a mark developing natural, organic treats for pets.
Waggit is another Boulder-based company ready to tap into the ever-growing pet market. It has developed a smart collar for dogs allowing pet parents to take better care of their canines.
In 2018, consumers in the United States spent an estimated $72.13 billion on pet services and products, according to the American Pet Products Association
With that spending comes plenty of opportunity for new products to make headway into pet owners' lives, and just as technology is changing the way people do everything from turning on the lights at home to tracking routes on the road, it has the potential to change how they take care of their companion animals, too.
Waggit's smart collar for dogs, in conjunction with an app, tracks a dog's heart rate, respiration rate, body temperature, body positions, activity and sleep quality, and alerts pet parents about any significant changes. It allows pet owners to be proactive in taking care of their dog's health.
The Waggit collar logs all data points using a cloud-based service and creates a PDF for veterinarians to help them diagnose potential health issues when a dog is brought to them. The collar also serves as a location tracker.
"It's a health and well-being monitor," said Susan Sierota, founder and CEO of Waggit, which recently began shipping the smart collar to customers across the United States. The company has so far sold 1,000 collars, which sell for $199 a piece and are available on the company website. The monitoring service costs $10 a month, Sierota said.
Currently, the collars are only available for dogs, Waggit plans to later introduce a similar product for cats, Sierota said.
Users pair the collar with the app, set up a profile of their dog with basic information about age, breed, gender, weight, whether they've been spayed or neutered, etc. The app then develops baseline health metrics for the pet, and continues to measure and monitor that. It allows pet parents to look for unusual data.
Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain, Sierota said. "By the time we notice it, it's too late." Waggit will help pet parents detect unusual changes in their pets and take corrective measure, she said.
Waggit is an exciting product that can complement veterinary medicine, said Jamie Saliman, veterinarian at Deer Creek Animal Hospital in Littleton.
For pet owners to be able to detect potential signs of illness early and share that with their pet's veterinarian will be a great help, she said. But it's not a diagnostic tool, she said. "I hope people see it as a compliment to their pet's relationship with the veterinarian."
Millennials, technology and new ideas
According to Grand View Research, the size of the global pet wearable market in 2016 was an estimated $1.7 billion. As pet owners are becoming more aware of pet well-being, coupled with the increasing popularity of fitness trackers and human wearable tech, the pet wearable industry is growing exponentially, Sierota said. The dog wearable industry is expected to grow to an estimated $3.5 billion in 2022 in the United States alone, she said citing industry data. "There are more households with dogs than kids."
Millennials are the largest pet-owning segment in the United States, which explains the increased use and popularity of technology in products geared for pets, said Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association. Millennials lead an active lifestyle and have pets for companionship, entertainment, fitness and emotional and medical reasons, he said. "They travel with pets and treat them as family."
Pets have been humanized and pet owners are not averse to spending money to take good care of their pets, Vetere said, referring to increased spending in the pet grooming, pet sitting, pet walking and pet hotel industries.
A high percentage of pet adopters at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley are young adults, anecdotally speaking, said Maggie McSchaefer, the humane society's director of strategic initiatives. The humane society doesn't track the age of adopters, she said.
Young adults are comfortable using technology to ensure their pets well-being, she said, adding that most people who adopt from the society are keen to know the history of their pets, and also how best to care for them. That interest in pets' history and continued wellness is right in step with local lifestyles, McSchaefer said. "We're a health conscious community."
The humane society sees opportunities to engage its supporters online, and enhance and streamline pet care through technology, she said. Many of the society's clients use dog walking apps and services such as Rover and Wag, and dog activity monitors that interface with smartphones, McSchaefer said. There are even apps that connect with cat's litter boxes, she said.
"We appreciate seeing creative technology that supports exceptional care while tapping into the fun inherent in having a pet," she said.
Ben Shapiro, a computer science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's ATLAS (Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society) Institute, designs technologies to help kids to develop deeper empathy for and understanding of their pets, as well as to help them to learn about the science of animal perception. He and Ph.D. student Annie Kelly have developed a mobile app called DoggyVision that allows people to see the world from a dog's eyes. The new perspective encourages them to look for ways to improve their pets' life experiences.
His research potentially can alert manufacturers to think of pets' perspectives while designing pet products, he said. The next logical step could be how to design and build technologies that pets could use in their interaction with their owners or other humans, Shapiro said.
Researchers have looked at the role of emotions in animal relationships, he said, referring to an experiment called " Tinder for orangutans" that led to the development of an app to help a female orangutan select a preferred mate from pictures of a possible partners on a touch screen.
Great vision can lead to great products, Shapiro said.
"I do exploratory research to understand the viability of different design ideas," he said.
The pet-wearable world
"I see the need for this product," Waggit's Sierota said of her company's collar.
Dog wearables have been around for about five years, she said. Waggit has tweaked and upgraded the device over the last three years after beta testing.
Waggit developed a custom antenna and adjusted the positioning of the sensors on the collar to make it more efficient, Sierota said.
"We are on the third-generation device. Technology is at a point where we can get true health metrics with quality data in a small form," she said.
"We're at the very beginning of our journey."
She helped raise $3 million in investment capital, and plans to ramp up production in the next six months, she said.
The company raised money with the help of angel investors, Sierota said. "We initially raised $1 million as that was what was needed to get us into our first beta prototype. We then raised $2 million to get to the milestone of shipping product, which we have achieved," she said.
Waggit will look to add institutional investors in the next round of funding, she said.
The huge size of the pet market and the fact people think of pets as family perhaps helped investors believe in Waggit and the solution it is providing to the pet-owning community, Sierota said.
Sierota said Waggit is different, adding Whistle is a 3G tracker that tracks location and activity and PitPat is an activity tracker. Waggit monitors a dog's vitals, she said, "We do have 4G tracking of location and all the activity," she said of Waggit.
For Waggit, the big challenge ahead is to develop smart algorithms for getting accurate data and to find the right manufacturing partners.
Sierota wants to develop a huge database of pets and their health metrics for wider usage in the pet industry, she said.
Industry experts talk about the high power consumption of pet wearables as a possible limiting factor in their wider adoption.
But Sierota said. "We use a custom rechargeable LiPo battery that gives up to seven days of battery life. We have tested the batteries and they should be good for at least three years."
Pratik Joshi: 303-684-5310, firstname.lastname@example.org