By Eric Paley, Partner
Snorkie, Miniboz, Cavazoo, and Scoodle would all be passable startup names, but they’re actually relatively new canine crossbreeds and represent just a fraction of the entrepreneurial energy recently invested in designer doggies. The Labradoodle, a hypoallergenic mix of Labrador retriever and poodle, the favorite dog breed of Miley Cyrus, the Norwegian crown prince, and the Paley family, only bounded onto the scene in 1955. Humans have domesticated dogs for 15,000 years, but the first Silken Windhound wasn’t born until 1987. Like web portals, Chiweenies (that’s a Chihuahua/Dachshund mix), achieved huge popularity in the early 1990s.
We live in a heyday for hybrid pups and that’s why we’re proud to announce our investment in Embark, a service that deciphers doggy DNA for pet owners, breeders, and vets. Think of it as Github for Greyhounds.
For just $199, Embark provides a report that calls out hundreds of interesting facts about your pet — everything from its geographic origins to a dossier on the personality traits it is likely to display. Consumer genetic testing is an amazing tool for genealogists and has fascinating long-term potential for modern medicine, but Embark moves in dog’s years. The Embark test can lead to a stronger, healthier litter of puppies in as little as two months and can shift the longevity of a breed in only a decade!
1. Pet Owners: There are 72 million dog-owning households in the US which spend over $66B on their pets each year. Besides offering incredible new insights on the origins and genetic makeup of a beloved family member, Embark can help golden retrievers better enjoy their golden years by giving owners a heads up on the maladies their mutts are genetically susceptible to and which foods and interventions might serve them best. Who wouldn’t want to give their best friend a longer and healthier life?
2. Veterinarians: There are 26,000 small veterinary clinics in the US. Vets armed with DNA test results will be able to more accurately diagnose the health risks their patients face and offer proactive solutions. Moreover, Embark is creating a genetic database of dog DNA which will surely lead to new discoveries in veterinary science.
3. Breeders: The benefits to breeders extend far beyond those that want to pioneer the next bespoke breed. With Embark, purebred breeders can use science rather than superstition to declare the pick of the litter and further refine the breed’s family tree. By investing in a DNA bank that will help improve the health and longevity of a breed, breeders can ensure the value of their dogs and businesses for generations to come.
Beyond the benefits to pet lovers and vets, Embark is a model of what we look for in a startup:
There is a reason Airbnb and Facebook were started by recent college grads. TJ Parker, a 2nd generation pharmacist who loves tech and obsesses over user experience, is the perfect person to lead PillPack.
Outsiders can bring a useful perspective to markets, but all things being equal, we’d prefer to back founders who fit their markets. Co-founders Adam and Ryan Boyko are uniquely suited to understand dog DNA. Adam is a Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University with 41 journal articles to his name. Ryan studied Computer Science at Harvard and epidemiology at Yale. Together, they’ve been swabbing dog cheeks for years and have traveled to Peru, Uganda, and Egypt in pursuit of rare breeds to build out their model. How many teams out there have members that delved into doggy drool to earn a doctorate, the ability to design a database, and a demonstrable knack for consumer-facing design?
We talk a lot about funding “weird and wonderful” businesses. People often take it to mean we favor or seek out bizarre-sounding ideas, but that’s a superficial read. What we look for are founders who see a crystal clear use case hidden in an industry or market that is opaque, or downright frightening, to most people and far from a current venture capital theme. We rarely invest in hot new technology platforms for their own sake, but we are willing to back great use cases that happen to operate in weird industries.
To be honest, when I was first introduced to Embark, I was a bit skeptical; however, Ryan backed up a barking mad pitch with a barrage of information about the business and its early traction and market adoption.
And their success isn’t just a matter of sales. In a short period of time, Embark has truly become the leading DNA testing product for dogs despite that competitors have been around for years. Ryan and Adam are regularly interviewed by the New York Times, National Geographic, and other national publications as they’ve done a world-class job establishing their thought leadership on canine genetic health. They’ve done creative business development deals, like designing quizzes for the Washington Post and providing the genetic testing for the annual Puppy Bowl. They might be the most media-savvy pair of scientists I’ve ever met. It’s easy for science focused teams to handwave past the tricky business issues, like pretending to throw a tennis ball to a Beagle, but the Boyko brothers have done the hard work of building a real business around their technical breakthrough.
Some people say all deals have fleas, but we’re wildly wagging our tails about leading this round of funding alongside Shana Fisher at Third Kind, Jenny Lefcourt at Freestyle, Bill Maris at Section 32, Anne Wojcicki who made a personal investment, and couldn’t be more excited to welcome Embark to Founder Collective!