What started as an idea for a Virginia Tech entrepreneurship class is making its way to becoming a long-awaited solution for pet owners everywhere – one that will give them a window into their pet’s veterinary appointments during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grace Hecker and Emma Taylor, two students working on the project with junior Gracie Hare and senior Parker Ryan, noticed growing frustration among pet owners at the clinics where they work as the clinics began requiring owners to wait in their cars while animals were seen. Taylor, who is responsible for reviewing her clinic’s Google reviews, noticed a marked shift in client sentiment after her clinic stopped allowing pet owners into the building for appointments. Many pet owners found themselves waiting in their cars for hours until someone came out to the parking lot at the end of the pet’s appointment to give them a run down on the visit and their bill.

“People felt like they weren’t getting the same value of service as they received before the pandemic,” said Taylor, who, like Hare, is double majoring in agribusiness and animal science with pre-veterinary options in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

To combat these difficulties, the students are designing a website that would send messages directly to animal owners whenever the clinic enters notes, prescriptions, lab results, and so forth. The system, which the students have named PetAware, will keep owners apprised of how appointments are going without adding extra work for veterinarians or their staff.

In fact, the students are working to streamline several administrative tasks for veterinary clinics by creating an all-in-one system that combines internal notes and client communication, as well as payment information and processing.

“Some clinics do have a messaging system, but it has nothing to do with putting charges in,” said Hecker. “We’re hoping that if we combine everything into one system, it will make more sense. And even after COVID, this will be something helpful for everyday vet care.”

By sending messages directly to clients in real time during animal appointments, clinics would see additional time savings by cutting out the need to send staff members outside to relay information.

“Veterinary assistants would have to enter more messaging during appointments, but it still would cut time because right now, vets are still doing the same work – entering lab results for example – but on top of that, they’re having to leave the building, or tell their assistant to leave the building, to tell clients what they just did,” said Taylor. “Our approach cuts out that second step.”

Emma Taylor examines a black dog inside a veterinary clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emma Taylor examines a dog at a veterinary clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To further simplify things, the students plan to have PetAware include a set of responses for veterinarian clinics to choose from when entering notes and messages to clients.

“We’ll program in some responses so vets can simply select an option from an existing list to let owners know what’s happening at an appointment,” said Hare. “Responses would be things like ‘your pet is getting lab work done,’ or ‘your pet is going in for surgery now.'”

Agricultural and applied economics Associate Professor Julien Cadot, who taught the Small Business Management and Entrepreneurship class that sparked the students’ interest in building PetAware, has been impressed with the team from the beginning.

“In my class, we cover entrepreneurial and business topics, but the students are the ones who apply them - PetAware and all its facets is completely and totally the brainchild of these students,” said Cadot. “They demonstrated an outstanding ability to integrate concepts and methods, which allowed them to gain autonomy from the very beginning, and they’ve become a real entrepreneurial team able to manage the project efficiently and without losing sight of the purpose.”

Recognizing PetAware’s potential and the group’s cohesion, Cadot encouraged the students to partner with the Virginia Tech Apex Center for Entrepreneurship, which is now helping to bring the project to life.

After participating in a recent competition with other entrepreneurial student groups through the Apex Center, the students were awarded additional funding for being a “fan favorite.”

“These students came to us with a great idea,” said Derick Maggard, executive director for the Apex Center. “Our job is to give them the resources and validation they need to move forward with it.”

With the initial funding, the students are delving further into market analysis and customer discovery. After which, they can apply for additional funding from the Apex Center to develop a prototype and continue their process of discovery, product development, and building this into a business.

“I grew up having a passion for veterinary medicine but only recently developed an interest in business,” said Taylor. “Seeing everyone's interest in an idea that I’m helping bring to life has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career.”

Through the Apex Center, the students have connected with mentors who have expertise in entrepreneurship and software development. However, Apex is hoping to kick up its partnership with interested alumni and partners within agricultural and veterinary fields specifically to provide further mentorship to PetAware and students with similar product ideas.

“I feel grateful and excited about what our team can accomplish,” said Hecker. “We initially did this as a project for class and it has grown into something we all love and are excited to move forward with.”

With help from the Apex Center – its donors and its contacts – the students hope to realize PetAware for the benefit of veterinary clinics and pet owners everywhere.

— Written by Jillian Broadwell