Europe’s pet tech sector has survived a tumultuous year.
Lockdowns brought a surge in interest in pets for the isolated, lonely and bored, but by the same measures, also a freeze in business for thriving services like holiday pet care.
As the continent emerges from the pandemic, investment in the pet sector looks set to roar back. Investors are increasingly willing to bet big sums on this sector — pet insurtech Bought By Many, for example, raised a $350m funding round, valuing the company at more than $2bn.
Accelerators can be a good way to talent-spot promising startups in this space. Purina, the pet care subsidiary of Nestlé, has been backing new European pet businesses since the 2020 launch of its Unleashed accelerator which gives startups access to the company’s research and development expertise, especially in pet health and nutrition, along with its commercial infrastructure, network and brand credibility.
The six-month, intensive program is unique in its level of domain expertise for a niche but high-growth sector.
“There are many accelerators out there, but we are the first and only pet care specific one in the Europe, Middle East and North African region,” says Kim Bill, who heads the Purina Accelerator Lab.
“When startups apply, they come to us because they want that pet care industry experience. We can understand their pain points immediately, and they are often surprised at how quickly we can nail down what they should be doing in their six-month program.”
Anssi Ruuhikorpi, CEO and founder at digital health and wellbeing app Pawsomer — which won a place in this year’s programme — says the Purina team has “already raised several valid points about our brand storytelling and our entry point to the market.”
Our objectives are to understand the Purina supply chain and how and where our product can fit in. This will include initial work to evaluate the product from a technical perspective to assess its suitability as an ingredient in pet foods. We also hope to learn more about Purina’s customers, pet parents and what motivations they have when buying foods for their companion animals. How important is sustainability? What are the other factors influencing their decisions?” — Max Swinscow-Hall, CEO of BioKind
The accelerator focuses on areas where Nestlé wants to strengthen its capabilities or accelerate innovation — including digital and data-driven innovation, proactive healthcare services, direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses and sustainability — including issues like packaging and the pet food industry’s carbon footprint.
Nestle has made a number of sizeable pet care bets in the last couple of years, including pet media website Wamiz; online personalised pet nutrition company, Tails.com; and natural pet food brands Terra Canis and Lily’s Kitchen. Earlier this year, together with Silverlake, they jointly led a €3.5bn investment into IVC Evidensia, Europe’s biggest vet group. The company isn’t necessarily looking to acquire any of the companies in the accelerator programme, but has gone on to run joint projects with many in the first cohort.
Startups in the accelerator programme can access the assets and network of Nestlé itself, a 150-year-old business.
BorrowMyDoggy, a dog-sitting site that matches owners with temporary hosts, was able to capitalise on Nestlé’s Pets-at-Work Alliance initiative which is working to make companies more pet-friendly. “This network helped us develop a business-to-business model,” says Rikke Rosenlund, the company’s founder.
“Without Unleashed, BorrowMyDoggy as an ‘employee benefit’ service would still be in its early infancy.”
Petable, a startup that provides software to vet clinics that came through the 2020 program, benefited from access to hundreds of veterinary clinics that already worked with Purina and collaborated with the company’s sales team to select its first customer base, according to Bruno Farinha — its founder and CEO.
Winning Unleashed is an opportunity for us to reach our goal of conquering the United Arab Emirates market. With Purina's team of experts that will be working with us, we can build a solid strategy, and use the right network to reach the targeted growth.” — Jimmy El-Hajj, cofounder at Paw Pots
Unleashed convenes a small group of just six companies for each cohort, which allows a depth of engagement and personalisation of support they could not find anywhere else.
“We surround each startup with at least three Purina experts,” says Bill. A project champion mentors the founders, facilitates connections with networks and makes sure that key performance indicators are delivered. A market champion helps startups understand their target geographies, while a subject champion brings technical product expertise.
“For a startup to succeed they need a diverse team around them and if we cannot form that team, we won’t take them on,” says Bill.
The startups that didn’t get on the programme this year shouldn’t give up, adds Bill. They should apply again and may well be successful the following year. This was the case with Animoscope, the digital veterinary service, which didn’t make the cut in 2020 but came back with a more developed proposition and was included in this year’s cohort.
Julien Tripet, CEO of Animoscope, says Unleashed stands apart from rival accelerators for its combination of offering “both the industry expertise we need as a pet care company to challenge our business model, and the overall general support one can expect from a traditional accelerator”.
The participants also learn from each other with teams meeting during onboarding and via monthly ‘show-and-tells’.
“They do not directly compete, but they are all in pet care, so they can get inspiration from each other,” says Bill. “They have the same target audience and themes.”
This peer support network is invaluable. “Unlike other accelerator programs we have been in, all members from Unleashed shared the same DNA of ‘pet love’,” says Kathrin Burckhardt, cofounder of Cat in a Flat, the online catsitting service that came through the 2020 program.
As the PuppyFat breeder community has grown, I’ve become increasingly aware that collaboration with key partners will allow PuppyFat to grow faster and better serve the needs of breeders worldwide. When I spotted the opportunity to collaborate with Purina, it was too good of an opportunity to miss.” — Michael White, CEO and founder of PuppyFat
Meet the 2021 cohort
This year’s winning entrants build on Purina’s debut program, deepening the company’s support for the ecosystem in fast-growing segments including enterprise software, digital health and D2C subscriptions.
- Animoscope built an AI-enabled symptom tracker, Vetocheck, the first digital vet service approved in France. Animoscope’s vision is to bring a full range of digital veterinary services to consumers.
- BioKind converts unused agro-industrial waste products into a high-value protein feed ingredient, called ProMeal, through the use of a proprietary bacteria-based process that can offset unsustainable proteins.
- Pawesomer is a Finland-based app that monitors pet health and wellbeing, including offering integration with an innovative index scale developed at the University of Helsinki to help owners understand their dog’s pain level. It also tracks food intake, heat cycles and vaccinations.
- PawPots is a Lebanon-based startup offering a subscription-based fresh pet food service, cooked at low temperatures to preserve nutrients. It has delivered 120k meals to peckish pets already.
- PuppyFat is digitising the paper-dominated world of pet breeders: from recordkeeping like tracking weight, feed, treatment, mating and fertility cycles and health documents; to offering secure digital storage and datasharing with vets and owners.
- Scorpet is a mobile, algorithm-based app enabling transparency and fair voting for online pet beauty contests via photo and video analysis.
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