Cornell Hackathon Inspires Animal Health Innovations

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In lofts that overlook Ithaca, N.Y. nearly two hundred students from Cornell University, Binghamton University, Georgia Tech, New York University, and Tufts University competed this January to see whose idea could be the next big breakthrough in animal health at the second annual Cornell Animal Health Hackathon.

Co-hosted by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and Entrepreneurship at Cornell, the competition invited students from any college or major to come up with innovative solutions in the animal health sector.

“The Animal Health Hackathon is intended to be an immersion learning experience for students to build business and entrepreneurship skills,” said Lorin D. Warnick, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. “The veterinary profession continues to diversify to fill vital roles in society and offering comprehensive business and entrepreneurship opportunities for students is a core strategic priority for the college.”

During the weekend event, students formed teams and collaborated with veterinarian and entrepreneurial mentors—including two-dozen Cornell alumni—from around the country. After 50 original ideas were pitched and groups formed, 10 teams presented their concepts, each vying for $5,000 in cash and prizes.

“The energy and the passion in that room were palpable,” said keynote speaker and Cornell alumnus Ted Sprinkle, CEO of Pet Partners LLC. “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.”

All innovations created at the hackathon had to address a problem in one of three categories: client and customer experience; diagnostics, prevention and treatment; or clinical workflow and compliance. The judges evaluated the product or service on novelty, scale of impact and viability.

“The hackathon was refreshing—and essential in providing veterinary students with the reminder that there is so much more out there than our particular area, that much can be gained by collaborating with other professionals,” said Nicholas Walsh, a third-year Cornell veterinary student who returned to the event for a second year in a row to compete.

“The hackathon brings together so many diverse fields that can learn from each other, gain exposure to issues that have a broader context and build solutions together,” said Isabel Jimenez, a third-year Cornell veterinary student.

In addition to cross-college collaborations, students got to see their business ideas come to rapid fruition in the course of a single weekend.

“I learned that it’s always valuable to step outside your comfort zone,” said Cornell veterinary student Amari Suskin-Sperry about her first hackathon experience. “From an initial concept to a fully-functioning app, my idea grew into a product in 36 hours.”

The grand prize winners developed HygenaPet— a $10 spray of beeswax and carnauba wax that owners can spritz on their dogs’ backsides, allowing the poop to slide right off the fur rather than stick.

Four more groups won additional honors in the event’s verticals. Encompass won the diagnostics and therapeutics vertical with an app that gathers client preferences and habits to help veterinarians customize care. CATcher and Squeak tied in the customer experience vertical, each creating a smart trap for feral cats and mice respectively. CowFinder won the workflow vertical with a product that helps locate a specific dairy cow in a herd.

“It’s inspiring to see such enthusiasm, creativity and innovative thinking directed toward animal health and veterinary medicine,” said Warnick. “My hope is that this will be just the beginning in terms of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s been sparked at this event. This was an important reminder that veterinarians can start software companies, apply new technology to diagnostic tests and treatment, start non-profit organizations or become industry executives.”


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