Inspiring innovation: College alumni provide insight, expertise to Animal Health Hackathoners

Here’s the pitch: college alumni who love to stay engaged and get involved travel from around the country to meet in Ithaca, N.Y., where they inspire students to create the most innovative and effective business ideas possible.

That’s exactly what happened at the second-annual Animal Health Hackathon, co-hosted by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and Entrepreneurship at Cornell, which united students in computer science, engineering, design, business, and veterinary medicine to develop innovative solutions to issues in animal health. Nearly two-dozen enthusiastic alumni participated as speakers, panelists, and mentors throughout the weekend, helping student teams puzzle through potential innovations.

The event kicked off with keynote speaker Ted Sprinkle ’66, DVM ’69, CEO of Pet Partners LLC, who spoke to the crowd about his long and varied career in both veterinary medicine and business.

“Don’t let your degree get in the way of your thinking,” he said. “Don’t be pigeonholed into going one way when your heart is telling you to go another.”

Repeatedly, Sprinkle stressed the importance of human relationships over technology. “We can’t expect innovation to come in and take over relationships,” he said. “We need to use innovation to intersect relationships and connect the dots in improving them.”

Sprinkle also shared how he faced his share of hardships during his career. “You can’t fear failure,” he said.” You have to look at it as another fork in the road in the pursuit of the end goal.”

Sharing stories

Several alumni also shared their entrepreneurial ups and downs during the Founders’ Stories portion of the event. Rodrigo Bicalho PhD ’08, associate professor of dairy production medicine at the college, shared his experiences in founding the start-up companies Fera Animal Health and Bactana Corp. The crowd laughed as he described picking a leadership team for a company. “When you are about to found a company with people, think about if you want to marry these people,” he said. “With a business team, there isn’t really any dating going on—you just get married.”

Jody Sandler DVM ’88, president and CEO of BluePath Service Dogs, shared  the story of his career path—from starting multiple varied businesses—some of which failed. “Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s part of success,” said Sandler. “You have to learn what doesn’t work to learn what does work.” Sandler’s current company, a non-profit organization, raises therapy dogs for children on the autism spectrum. As he showed the crowd photos of children paired up with their canine friends, he noted, “Everyone should do something remarkable in their lives.”

Filling the gaps

Many alumni participated by joining panel discussions on the future of veterinary medicine and the current pain points facing animal health.

Michele Barrett DVM ’09, a veterinarian with Zoetis Dairy Technical Services, spoke about the challenges facing the dairy industry.  “We are trying to produce food products for an ever expanding population and we’re doing this in a market that is reducing our labor supply,” she said. “We need technology that will help farmers do that while maintaining the health of animals—all with less labor to do that work.”

For Carole Richards DVM ’07, co-owner and veterinarian at Caring Hands Animal Hospitals, the biggest gaps lie in new graduates’ understanding of business and communication. “New veterinarians need to learn a bit more about how a business works,” she said. “I think a lot of students may have gone to veterinary school because they loved animals, but veterinary practice is actually all about constant interaction with clients.”

Andy Eschner ’87, DVM ’90, northeast regional director of field veterinary services at Boehringer Ingelheim, encouraged the students in the room to think broadly when brainstorming. “Don’t limit yourself to thinking it has to be a product.  Think about the number of strays in need of homes and healthcare; think about mental healthcare in the profession … think globally–there’s lots of gaps,” he said.

Pitching the big picture

After alumni and others shared their experiences and views, the students got down to business creating teams and ‘hacking’—brainstorming and developing innovative new solutions to problems in animal health. “The energy and the passion in that room were palpable,” said keynote speaker Ted Sprinkle.  “Normally, at this stage of their journey, it can be hard to get students to sit down and take in the big picture—but the students at this event were definitely seeing the big picture.” Panelist member Carole Richards agreed. “It’s so great to see a group of enthusiastic students working together to move the veterinary industry forward,” she said.

After over 24 hours of researching, creating, strategizing, and pitching, the event culminated in the announcement of the winners in each market category. The innovation spanned the spectrum of industries and ideas, from an online survey tool to capture pet owner personality types, to smartphone-controlled humane animal traps, to a dairy cow tracking device. The grand prize went to Hygena Pet, a non-toxic spray to prevent stool from sticking to long-haired dogs’ backsides.

The level of innovation and creativity had alumni talking. “It’s been a great experience to see these teams of young people collaborate and create some very marketable ideas,” said Ken Rotondo DVM ’75, president of Mind Genomics Advisors. “I’ve been really impressed.”

“This event has been a blast,” said Sylvester Price DVM ’84, director of therapeutic evaluation at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. Price served as a mentor both at this and last year’s hackathons. “It’s been fascinating to watch all these ideas maturing into a reality in a very short period of time.”

Alumni Association Executive Board President and private practice owner Susan Ackermann DVM ’86 thoroughly enjoyed the event and is excited to return to next year’s hackathon. “What an amazing opportunity to participate in the 2018 Animal Health Hackathon. I can personally attest that it was quite the humbling experience for this cat doctor! Such a rich exchange of knowledge and inspiring energy with teams of students hailing from all facets of Cornell University,” she said of the 24 teams who worked with the group of 41 professional mentors. “I come away from the event with even greater respect for the magnificent inventive learning institution that is my beloved alma mater, as well as the brilliant and talented staff that keep her vibrant and ever evolving. A true breath of fresh air in the middle of winter–and I am already looking forward to next year’s event!”