Pet services can be serious startup business. Witness the likes of dog walking startups Rover and Wag, for example. At the same time digital health is a major area of interest for entrepreneurs, thanks to reliable demand meeting tech’s disruptive potential.
Well, Sweden’s FirstVet is dabbling in both — offering remote video consultations and advice for pet owners wondering if they should worry about their furry friend’s latest bout of coughing/sneezing/vomiting, or whether that chocolate bar the dog snarfed when you weren’t looking is a cause for real concern.
As the name suggests, the niche FirstVet is looking to carve out is a pretty specific one — focused on first layer pet owner concerns which essential boil down to asking a qualified professional whether you really need to take Fido to the vet or not. So it’s main competitor is probably Google search.
“We are a supplement to physical clinics rather than a substitute to them,” says CEO and co-founder David Prien. “The most common problems we help pet owners with are gastrointestinal questions, wounds, skin/fur/ears. Our main objective is to be the natural first point of contact for pet owners.”
True to his word, a note on FirstVet’s website warns prospective customers: “If your pet is acutely ill or severely wounded you should always seek veterinary care immediately.”
“We really don’t want to be the party that pet owners turn to in real emergency cases and always refer them directly to physical vet clinics, we always make the medical journals available for both the clinic receiving the referral and pet owner directly after each consultation,” adds Prien.
The startup launched in 2016, and now claims around 60,000 registered users in its home market of Sweden — saying it’s answered close to 4,500 calls after slightly over a year on the market. Business has been growing 25 per cent month over month, it adds.
Prien says the price point for the service is set at about 30-40% of the starting fee for a physical vet visit in the market.
Which is still 30-40% more expensing than Googling symptoms — i.e. assuming you’re happy to ignore the risk of the free info you found online being entirely bogus.
While FirstVet intended to offer a b2c service, its route to market has been via partnerships with insurance companies who offer the service to their customers as a way to potentially reduce the risk of more major pet insurance payouts, or as a touchpoint for reaching pet owners who don’t have insurance cover and thus could be persuaded to sign up.
“What happened was that we quickly found that it made sense to collaborate with the insurance companies since it saves money for both them and the end customer,” says Prien. “The service is very popular amongst un-insured pet owners as well, and the share of uninsured pets using the service corresponds with the insurance penetration for each market so far.”
“We have collaborations in place with all eight active insurance companies in Sweden (where the insurance penetration is about 80%),” he adds.”And are currently launching new collaborations with three Finnish insurance companies as we speak.”
FirstVet is announcing a €5.1 million (~6M) Series A today, led by Creandum with participation from existing angel investors — which is says include experts in the telemedicine space.
The funding will be used for business growth and additional market expansion in Europe, with Norway and Denmark slated as “coming soon”. It says its plan is to launch into all the Nordic countries — along with “key European markets” that have high rates of pet insurance.
“Our aim to launch in at least one central European market during 2018,” adds Prien.
Asked whether it’s taking a cut of vet visit fees for any referrals, he says not in its home region. Though his response to this question leaves a bit of wiggle room in markets where veterinary services have not been so consolidated.
“In the Nordics it’s very important for us to be independent from the big clinical actors, as they have consolidated the markets very quickly and driven the price levels. This way we can always refer the pet owner to the right veterinarian without having any other incentive than giving the right advice at the right time to all pet owners,” he tells TechCrunch.
FirstVet could face a competitive squeeze from on-demand vet startups which are operating in some European markets — such as the likes of UK startup PawSquad — which can send a qualified veterinarian to check out your pet at home. And does also offer its own 24/7 remote vet consultation option, including via video or text chats.
But Prien suggests FirstVet’s model offers pet owners the advantage of impartial advice — since it’s not incentivized to generate a physical vet visit in cases where this can be avoided. Whereas home visit services might want to encourage visits to to grab a bigger fee.
“To have a truly independent source to turn to, no matter the time or place/if you’re insured or not, really provides great value for pet owners,” he argues. “Given that the market is fully privatized, we strongly believe that it is important not to make this type of service ‘dependent on the incentive of actually generating a physical vet visit when it potentially could be avoided (as many pet owners perceive vet visits as quite stressful, time consuming and expensive).”
While it’s still early days for FirstVet, and it’s focusing on market expansion, Prien says it is also looking into ways to expand the services it can offer pet owners by creating DIY tests which they could carry out to help with remote diagnostics.
“We’re currently in the very beginning of developing self-tests for pet owners to conduct from home together with a partner as well, that indicate super interesting results,” he adds.