Take a walk in a park on weekends and you’re bound to see a number of owners walking their dogs. The pet industry in Singapore is booming. Euromonitor’s data indicates that there were 196,600 pet dogs and cats – not counting adoptions and unregistered animals – in 2019, an increase of almost 20 per cent from five years prior.
This fact didn’t escape Athena Lee, a pet owner herself. When she realised how difficult it was to get medical advice for her pets, the former CEO of telehealth company Doctor Anywhere decided to solve the problem. In 2019, Lee together with doctor Grace Su launched ZumVet, a pet telehealth start-up. Two years on, ZumVet has 25 vets registered on its platform and receives between 70 and 100 consultations a week.
We chatted with Lee (pictured, right) just after the completion of ZumVet’s seed round funding – “north of $1 million” – that was led by Pine Venture Partners and included Aetius Capital and Purpose Venture Capital.
ZumVet was operating for close to two years before finally getting seed funding. How did you run and finance it in the first two years?
When we first began ZumVet, we raised a friends-and-family round to get us started. We bootstrapped over the last two years and prioritised our business needs. We kept the team really small with only 3 to 4 full-time staff, applied for government grants and mainly used word-of-mouth marketing to market our business. We also engaged very actively with community pet groups to understand our users’ needs better and pivoted accordingly. As a user-first product, keeping our team small and agile meant that we were able to adapt and move quickly.
How is human telehealth different from pet telehealth? Did you manage to apply the same business lessons from Doctor Anywhere to ZumVet?
Human telehealth and pet telehealth are not actually too different. One of our missions at ZumVet is to raise the quality of vet care in Singapore and the region to match the standards in human healthcare. One of the comparisons we like to cite is just like babies and toddlers, our pets aren’t able to verbalise what they are feeling. So the onus is on the parent, or in our case, the pet owner, to communicate the pet’s history and symptoms to our vets over the video call. While there are of course many differences, the way vets would approach a diagnosis and then course of action, is fairly similar.
We definitely did bring our human telehealth business lessons into structuring ZumVet. Our workflows and escalation measures are based on human telehealth guidelines, and we keep this standard even though pet telemedicine is not as regulated in Singapore. However, at the end of the day, our customers are at the heart of every one of our product decisions and by incorporating a digital element to their pet’s health, we are building an online to offline care ecosystem to look after all their pet’s healthcare needs.
What are some of the unique business challenges of growing a telehealth company?
The biggest challenge comes from the fact that we operate within a very traditional ecosystem that is slow to embrace change and innovation. There were many misconceptions from vets and pet owners surrounding the efficacy of telemedicine in the veterinary context. Education is key to overcoming preexisting beliefs.
We often emphasise that our platform isn’t a replacement for a traditional clinic visit, but part and parcel of a robust pet healthcare journey. We want pet owners to use remote care services as an opportunity to ask questions early and have any chronic illnesses diagnosed early to prevent further escalation of potentially serious medical conditions.
How are you differentiating ZumVet from your competitors?
Digital health for pets is still quite nascent in Asia, so our competitors remain traditional, brick and mortar clinics. They typically don’t view pet telehealth as a viable touchpoint and consider it a means to an end, especially as a result of Covid-19. The way it is practiced is quite ad-hoc. They do video calls through Facetime and refill prescriptions through WhatsApp, both of which do not take into account security and privacy risks, and potential abuse and fraud. That said, we don’t see vet clinics as our rivals. We believe that a strong online to offline ecosystem will benefit pet owners in the long run and we want to cultivate strong relationships with traditional stakeholders.
“Establishing data standards is the cornerstone to improving the quality of care, yet we found this to be lacking in the veterinary industry. So we made it our focus to collect data on medical outcomes so that we can build insights on common conditions, find the most effective treatments for them and effectively bring down costs related to these conditions in the long term.”
ZumVet CEO Athena Lee on using data to lower veterinary costs
What are the main pet issues that ZumVet normally gets?
One of the main issues that we are seeing a lot of are itchy pets. Due to our climate, many dogs and cats get skin problems and because they are recurring, many pet owners don’t end up treating the root of the issues. Since we saw so many of these cases, we built a home-testing workflow so that owners can test their pets for any potential fungal infections and get them treated effectively after a video call review with our vets. This has had good take up. By making these tests accessible, we hope that pet owners will better understand the health of their pet and make better decisions.
How are you gathering the data you get from each consultation to help your start-up?
Establishing data standards is the cornerstone to improving the quality of care, yet we found this to be lacking in the veterinary industry. So we made it our focus to collect data on medical outcomes so that we can build insights on common conditions, find the most effective treatments for them and effectively bring down costs related to these conditions in the long term. The data points come from our partner clinics, past medical records uploaded by our users, and consultations that have been completed through ZumVet. Using this dataset, we have been able to improve treatment outcomes, improve the efficiency of care coordination and establish customised preventative care solutions that we will roll out over the coming months.