Industry Watch

Dr. Susan Miller

Petrepreneurs: Pets + Ideas = Opportunities

Two Minnesota women are innovating ways to care for our animals

By Kevyn Burger

A broken leg changed the direction of Dr. Susan Miller’s career. A skiing accident forced her to put her life as a veterinarian on pause.

“I was off work for three months and it gave me time to think,” says Miller. “It made me ask if I was doing what I was meant to be doing.”

Mission Animal Hospital is the ultimate result of Miller’s reflection. Two years ago, she bought a suburban veterinary practice and transformed it into a startup unlike any in Minnesota, and perhaps the nation — a nonprofit animal care clinic.

“This industry has been very profit driven and no one had wrapped their brain around the idea of doing it an alternative way,” she says. “I’ve witnessed many people who had to say goodbye to a pet because veterinary care was unaffordable. That was unacceptable to me.”

Last year, Miller moved her first-of-its-kind clinic into a 5,500 square foot space in a former used car showroom in Eden Prairie. It’s a full service practice; pet owners bring their animals to be diagnosed and treated and have access to a full range of services including vaccinations, surgery and dental care.

“We never compromise the medicine, but we have flexibility to use different protocols that cost less,” Miller says. “Just like with humans, veterinary medicine has become very specialized, and specialists are expensive. We can do treatments that other clinics push out the door.”

Mission offers a two-tier payment approach. Pet owners who can afford it pay rates similar to what other metro area clinics charge; there’s a sliding scale for low-income owners. The clinic also offers reduced fees to animal rescue organizations.

“Many people put the needs of their animals above their own. If they have to pay for what their animals need, it means the people won’t have money for their own medicine or groceries.” she says. “I’ve seen that many times.”

Kristi Meenan recently waited for walk-in care for Vito, her English Springer Spaniel. Meenan, 32, had tried to treat his infected ear, dabbing it with hydrogen peroxide, but got worried when the 9-year-old dog didn’t improve.

“I’m a newly single mom and a full-time college student,” she explains. “I used to be able to afford a vet, but I don’t have money for the unexpected now. He shouldn’t suffer because of that. He’s the best dog ever.”

A life spent helping animals sounds idyllic, but the career comes with challenges. The nation’s veterinarians earn less than other professionals with a comparable amount of schooling. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported their mean annual income at $98,230.

The business of caring for animals comes with a high risk for burnout. Every day, veterinarians deal with animals in pain and they routinely have to deliver bad news to pet owners. That’s added to the stress of running a small business while carrying what’s often a hefty school debt.

“Vets come to me when they’re looking for a career change or job shift,” says Dr. Tracey Correiro, a practicing veterinarian who also has a coaching practice, working with others in her profession.

“Vet training is very rigorous. A deep interest in animals brings people in, but you can’t just love animals. People who work in this field are smart, curious and altruistic. They know what their values are, and that guides them when they’re changing their path.”

The American Pet Product Association estimates Americans shelled out $15.73 billion for veterinary care last year. That’s one line item on the total $58.4 billion spent on pets in 2015.

The human-animal bond has become ever more intense — and lucrative.

“We know that 72% of American homes have pets, and about a third of those owners are what we call ‘pet parents’—they’re really in tune with their animals, worry about them and feel guilty when they’re away,” says Lisa Lavin, co-founder and CEO of Anser Innovation.

The Burnsville-based company pioneered the technology for a videophone that allows pet owners and animals to see and hear one another remotely. A sort of Skyping for animals, the PetChatz product, which retails for $349, lets people dial up their pets through their smartphones, tablets or computers. It even allows them to dispense treats from afar.

Lavin, 51, brings a background in animal science to the product line. She taught veterinary radiography and pharmacology at a technical college and the vet school at the University of Minnesota, and authored a textbook on radiography in veterinary technology. She went on to work in marketing and product development for animal and human health care companies.    

She predicts the demand for goods and services that appeal to pet owners will only continue to expand.

“It’s a market that’s growing by about 5% per year,” she notes. “We see millennials choosing to not have kids as early or as often. That’s a trend that will make them even more attached to their pets.”

Anser Innovation holds four patents related to the PetChatz platform. Lavin says the next invention from the company will adapt the technology for human interaction.

“We’ve proven the audio-video interface and the ability to dispense something from a distance. We want to build on that and take it to the elder care space,” she says. “Imagine being able to give your mother her medicine remotely, then watch her take it. What started with pets can be rinsed-and-repeated in a variety of different verticals. We want to connect the disconnected.”