May 12, 2023

Schulich students’ startup aspires to better monitor horse health

Equusense garners competition victories and industry interest with 'Fitbit for horses'
Capstone Equusense
The Equusense team poses for a photo during the 2023 Engineering Design Fair at the Schulich School of Engineering. Fritz Tolentino

Nathalie Drzewiecki says horses are a lot like toddlers stuffed inside a 1,000-pound body.

They are injury- and accident-prone, she says, and it’s up to their caregivers to figure out what might be wrong with them, because they can’t actually tell you what hurts.

“Sometimes, it can be hours or days before anything is detected,” she says. “With many conditions such as colic or leg injuries — things that might come up all the time — timely detection is key as the sooner you can treat it, the better the outcomes.”

Drzewiecki, who is in her final undergraduate year, teamed up with fellow Schulich School of Engineering students Elian Dupre Sarmiento, Hamza Syed, Peter Shmerko and Ryan Baker in hopes of building a product that could help with early detection of injuries and issues in horses.

They ended up creating Equusense, a startup company which centres on what they describe as a “Fitbit for horses.”

The project has captured the imaginations of people in industry and academia, and was one of the star attractions at the 2023 Engineering Design Fair on April 4.

No horsing around

An electrical and software engineering student and horse owner herself, Drzewiecki says there is no remote monitoring for horses, and she can’t seem to get a system to improve it.

She says the industry is a bit resistant to change, but believes that wearable technology might help bridge the gap for those wanting more information about their animals.

The team wanted to develop a product that didn’t bother the horses, but gave owners what they needed.

“The device attaches in a little pocket, exposes the sensor to touch the horse’s skin, and you’re able to get the heart rate and temperature readings,” says Drzewiecki.

It’s like a slinky, pajama material so it’s super comfortable for the horse and they can wear it with or without a blanket on … in the summer or winter.

The device pairs with a mobile app, so owners can leave the barn and still get real-time health vitals and location of their horses.

Galloping along

After speaking with academic advisers, industry members and potential customers, the team quickly received commitments from 10 horse owners to start using the technology once it’s available.

Drzewiecki says they are all interested in improving how horses are being monitored, as happy and healthy horses are good for everyone involved.

While the technology was one piece of the puzzle, the business model was another.

The team took part in Liftoff!, the final competition of the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking’s flagship co-curricular Launchpad program, and while they didn’t win, Equusense was named the People’s Choice Award winner, as voted on by in-person attendees, as well as the Clearest Development Trajectory Award.

Hunter Hub Equusense

The Equusense team displays its award at the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking's Launchpad event.

Ricky Lam, Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking

They took that experience to Schulich’s Engineering Design Fair, where they were awarded first place in Entrepreneurial Engineering.

“In many ways, I felt like there would always be two sides to me — the crazy horse girl and the nerdy engineering student,” Drzewiecki says. “When my two worlds collided, a dream began and, during this past week, many dreams have come true.”

A long-track mindset

For the Equusense team, this is just the beginning, as they believe everyone from individual horse owners to major organizations and events like the Calgary Stampede stand to benefit from enhanced animal-monitoring systems.

They plan to keep working on the project after graduation, with the next steps to get a few more horse owners on board and to begin manufacturing the device.

“We know we need to take it up to the next level to get to our product launch,” Drzewiecki says. “We are hoping to secure more seed-round funding to make sure we have the resources for building the devices, and then we will just keep working hard to see how far we can take this.”

The team is aiming toward an official product launch in early fall 2023.

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