Pet Tech – Wearables for Healthy Best Friends with Fabrizio Filippini
Electrical engineer, Fabrizio Filippini, has always had a strong passion for web, IoT, and sports. That got him into wearables, which led him to join as a co-founder of FitBark.
Wearables for animals? No one thinks innately about health monitors for pets like they do for humans, with our Apples Watches, FitBits, and more. It turns out this is an important area of development because pets don’t communicate their conditions through their behaviors the same way humans do. Dogs especially communicate happiness when they see their owners, even when they might be struggling with a serious health issue.
Fabrizio and Ledge talk UX, data, IoT, and more in this novel look at the wearables you might never have thought about.
Ledge: Fabrizio, good to have you on.
Fabrizio: Hi, Ledge. Thank you for having me.
Ledge: If you don’t mind, give a little background story of yourself and your work, how you got to be doing what you’re doing, and we’ll get the audience to get to know you a little bit.
Fabrizio: Sure. I’m an electrical engineer by design with a strong passion for web and software, and even sports. That’s what kind of got me into wearable devices. At the beginning more for humans, even if I was more focused on social relationship with my previous company.
I then joined the FitBark team as a co-founder of FitBark, and now we’re fully focused on wearable for pets.
I like trying to find new challenges that I can resolve with technology and get the technology as small as possible, and hopefully with the longest battery life as possible.
Ledge: Nice. I have to admit, until talking to you I never even gave a thought that there was such a thing as pet tech – and I talk to a lot of people doing a lot of stuff.
Back out for a second and tell us about pet tech as a vertical. I literally never said that word in my life.
Fabrizio: It did sound strange, and it does sound strange, so we kind of agree on that one. What people don’t realize, and we didn’t do at the beginning, when you hear the word FitBark of the company you think immediately of the FitBit – the health activity monitor for humans.
There is a big difference between humans and pets. We are trying really to give a voice to pets, and pets of course cannot talk. Since the pets don’t speak our languages, it’s kind of hard to understand if something is going bad, if they are feeling something bad. Especially in dogs.
It’s a problem, that when you meet the dog, the dog is trying to be happy and look happy to meet you, to greet you. That time, that three seconds, gets stuck for you that for you everything is fine. Then you go to sleep and then you go to work.
Over a day, you can spend time with your dog for two hours – three at top – so you don’t know what’s happening on the rest. There is a completely different use case for pet technology. One is taking care of your pets, and another one is give them a voice.
Ledge: Okay. Does anyone ever tell you that that reminds them… Maybe I’m older than you, I don’t know, but ‘because pets can’t talk’ used to be the tag line for Pets.com. I’m so glad you are taking that back from the famous business case of things that did not go so well. I hope you have a better story for that tag line than they did.
Anyway, I digress about that. Okay. Pets need a voice. That’s cool. Tell me about that wearables. How does this work? What are you guys doing?
Fabrizio: Of course, before entering into it, in the beginning we started with the fun part of it, the marketing part let’s say. “This is great everybody’s going to want one.”
Then we got into the technology and the studies. There are a lot of studies around it, and we participated in a few of them and we provided the technology in many others now that we have it. There are studies that really look into how healthy is an owner compared with the dog? If the owner is a fitness-oriented or health-oriented person, the dog is going to be more healthy, generally speaking. While, even if you have an obese dog and you want to take care of the dog, you’re going to get healthier as a consequence because someone needs to walk the dog, at the end.
The issue that before these gadgets – let’s call them gadgets even if they are a little more – we didn’t know what the dog needed. You didn’t have a baseline. Now we have about almost all the in our database. When you create your dog’s profile we recommend an activity. If you walk the goal, activity, you’re assured by your dog stays healthy. There are even studies that go as far as saying that a healthy dog lives two years longer, on average.
For people this is very important. Having something that can tell you what you have to do to take care of your pet, in my opinion, is invaluable.
Ledge: Absolutely. I completely can understand how, well, pets start to look like their owners. It’s not just your head. If I have this fat dog that sits around eating potato chips all the time, it’s probably because I do.
I know, as a runner, I think about, yeah, I want to buy a dog that can run a lot. Things like that.
Fabrizio: It’s correct. There are breeds that are more active. That’s another point of view. We can definitely recommend breeds for the type of person that you are. We can even recommend breeds for the area where you are.
On our website, we publish, so we know what are the states in the US with the most active dogs. We know which breed is the most active. We know even which country worldwide is the most active in walking dogs. Of course it’s very easy to guess, but the warmer the country the more active. If you go to Alaska it’s harder to. Or Canada, we know that…
Ledge: Have you got this on one of the dogs in the Iditarod? That would be kind of cool. Collect that data.
Fabrizio: Yeah. We do have crazy partners as well. We had a dog sled team as well in the Arctic. Sometimes we get crazy requests because at the end we track activity and it’s a baseline. We got some zoos asking if they could use the FitBark on penguins, or chickens. We got all kind of… We had eagles as well.
People are really doing a lot of studies around pets, and they need tools to develop their studies.
Ledge: Cool. It sounds like you have a humorous attitude about the approach, but there’s a lot of really important. I completely can imagine that trackers of all sorts, you hear about people tag certain animals and scientists track them through the wild and see what they do and all kinds of stuff. You’re deeply involved in it and it sounds like commercializing that from a consumer standpoint too.
Fabrizio: Yes. We try to sell a very nice user experience and still a consumer product. The biggest part of our business is still the consumer, but we validate our product with studies and researches.
We do believe it’s important, mainly because activity is the primary indicator of almost any medical condition in pets. If you go to a vet, the first thing that he’s going to ask every time is, did you notice any change in his behavior? Now you don’t have to guess anymore. You can just look it up in your app.
We got people thanking us, because their dog got an infection, they noticed he didn’t sleep via the app. The app you can see in the morning, you’re seeing their bedtime. You see that your dog didn’t sleep, something happened. Or, if your dog has arthritis, for example, he’s going to be more active during the night. You can track how much pain the dog is having during the night and you can track if the medication is working.
I’m not a vet, so I’m not sure I can get into all the specifics, but these are a couple of examples that we know of. Infections will bring down activity. Ticks. There are many, many things that will have a direct impact on activity.
Ledge: Right. I have to admit. I know that there are FitBits and Apple watches and they track stuff and all this, I don’t know how this works even for humans. You strap a device onto anything that’s alive, how do you even know what to do with…
You collect some kind of data and then you have to extrapolate that into a condition? Talk about wearable tech in general. How does this even work? I have no idea and I’m a pretty big nerd.
Fabrizio: I’m not sure I’m able to answer on the human side forcefully. On the pet side it’s so much easier. The only thing that I think about when we talk about health, and human versus pet, if you notice Apple with the Apple watch is going in the direction of health. A very important sensor and something that can really help your health. At the end, activity for humans you can learn it. After you learn your baseline, you don’t really need a device anymore. You know that if you walk 30 minutes you do a couple of miles. You do one hour you do a few more. After you learn that part, technically you just need it to keep you motivated.
Ledge: First it tells me, get up from my desk once in a while, which I don’t do.
Fabrizio: Yeah. They’re trying to push you in other directions to keep you healthy, and there are many other ways around it.
Ledge: “Walk outside, not to the fridge.” Yeah okay.
Fabrizio: Of course. That’s the most difficult thing.
Ledge: Dog measurement. How does this even work? How do you extrapolate things like pain and sleep? Where? From what?
Fabrizio: Our devices are accelerometer based device. We developed a proprietary algorithm that is based on the few research papers existing at the time. We use our own measure that is called bark points. Of course we made it fun, but in the end it’s the energy expenditure of the dog.
Whenever the dog walks, they have an average frequency of 4 Hz vibration that we try to filter out. We try to work around the 4 Hz frequency and then we try to filter out the noise and we try to give them points when they move. When they start moving and the faster they move…
Let me give you an example. This is a technical example. If you walk or run, if your run your step is going to be longer. Technically, if you count that as a single step, the step measure it’s not really proportional to the distance. If you’re running, in the same amount of steps you do more distance.
But in dogs it’s slightly different because if they run they use more energy and we can measure that energy, so we give you more points. But the distance is going to be the same. It’s kind of a different measure and we can be a lot more specific.
Even our granularity of the data that we collect is very specific. We can kind of tell you every minute what your dog did during the night, and what is the intensity of the movement, and if there is something that you should worry about or not. These are the kind of direction.
Ledge: So a sleeping dog gives off a certain vibration or a certain pattern of movement than a non-sleeping dog.
Ledge: What about the dogs that run on the ground while they’re dreaming? Do you track that?
Fabrizio: Well, we don’t need to track that movement. At the moment we don’t differentiate those, because the amount of data that we would need to transfer real time for a single user is probably too much.
Ledge: Does it say like, “Your dog dreamed about rabbits?” I don’t know.
Fabrizio: We definitely can tell you what time the dog had a dream. That what you can see. If the dream lasts for too long, maybe it’s something else.
Ledge: That’s cool. Software components. You’ve got to communicate all this stuff I guess to the cloud, and then present dashboards and apps and the whole thing.
User experience. You’ve got hardware, you’ve got software. You guys have a lot to think about there.
Fabrizio: Yeah. We’ve focused mainly on the mobile app. We have iOS and Android apps. We do have a kind of web dashboard, mainly simply designed for vets. You can of course share your pet with multiple owners, and so you can share it even with your vet. If you sign up as a vet you get a couple more features. You have groups. You can do groups. You can do analysis. You can divide your patients into different categories and see how it goes.
I’m glad you mentioned user experience, because in the pet tech there are other companies doing other stuff. We did take a look around. For example, there are automated feeders that you can program or feed your dog via Wi-Fi.
The user experience, we know their challenge is involving the user because the use doesn’t want the machine to feed the dog. They want to be part of the feeding, of growing the dog and taking care of it. They want to feel the responsibility. They want to feel that they are doing the job. If you take it away from them, they don’t feel connected anymore and they don’t like it.
That’s why user experience is kind of important, and we build it around the dog itself. But even other pet tech products they have to deal with that. Users really want to take care of their dog. It’s part of the family and so they want to feel they’re doing their part.
Walking is one aspect. Feeding is of course an aspect that we don’t do at the moment. There are other pet tech, even cameras for example that dispense treats. That’s like being connected while you’re at work, and that’s very important in the pet space. Since they can’t talk, you want to try to connect as much as you can.
Ledge: Right. That’s funny because a dog can’t even see a camera, right?
Ledge: Okay. That’s what I thought. Sometimes we put the dog on the webcam and the dog doesn’t seem to care.
Fabrizio: Well, now they have different cameras. They have the one that you can talk. The one that the dog can push and send you a message. They’re developing a lot of stuff. Mainly the main point is they want to keep the connection – and what’s better than a treat to keep the connection with your dog?
Ledge: That’s what I would say.
Fabrizio: He’s always going to come if there is a treat.
Ledge: People keep connections with me that way. Just bring me some donuts.
Fabrizio: Well, that works too.
Ledge: So, you’re a founder, you’ve grown a company. Talk to me me about, you came in, I’m sure at the beginning it was you and maybe a couple of people. I don’t know how big you guys are now, but what’s the journey been like? Lessons learned maybe from growing a team?
Fabrizio: The journey is that making hardware is hard, like many people say, and we had a lot of challenges in the beginning. Mainly because when we started working on the technology it was the very early days of Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth wasn’t really available on any device, so you didn’t even know what to do at the time and you were kind of guessing.
Then this technology was widely adopted so quickly that at the end it came out a lot of other new products, new components, so it was even hard to keep track of those.
Then, our first device became obsolete very fast, and so we had to design a new one. The first one was hard to design and manufacture, and so we kind of relied on our users to give us feedback. When we did the second version, we fixed all the issues that got reported. Now users are super happy with the design itself.
The other thing that we learned is that, especially on wearables for something that is not yourself or wearables that you use only for one specific purpose, the battery life is very critical. Now we went from 14 days to six months with background syncing and everything. Technically, you charge it and you put it on the dog and the day we’re going to send you a push notification from the server, there is something wrong and we’re going to tell you if you’re doing a good job, you don’t have even to open the app.
We’re trying to make the experience transparent or silent for you. You put the device on and you do what you have to do, and we tell you if you’re doing something wrong or if you’re doing something good.
We really learned that, when the device is not on yourself it’s hard to keep it charged, and so you lose users like that very easily. People get tired quickly of charging a device.
Ledge: So a six month battery charge with a persistent connection for data, then yeah, I imagine that’s a significant problem. I don’t know any device that stays charged for six months.
Fabrizio: Well, six months, it’s a big number. There are wearables for humans that they said they were going to get close to six months. Now there are other devices getting even more. That’s one variable in the bigger picture, of course. The bigger picture is that, I want to take care of my dog. I don’t want to really open the app.
Some users they have fun seeing the bark points, and trying to reach their goal is definitely something motivational for the user, but mainly what they want to do they want to take care of the pet. So what we need to provide you, we need to provide you the tools to take care of the pet.
Ledge: What are people discovering? If I think I’m a good dog owner and I use the product, what am I going to discover about best practices or, oh wow, I need to… Probably, invariably I bet it’s like 90% of people don’t walk their dog enough.
Fabrizio: More or less – a little less, probably percentage wise. But yes, it’s a big percentage.
The first thing you learn, you learn how you’re doing against your peers. You have a specific dog – it’s a breed, it’s an age and weight – and what is the baseline for the dog? Nobody really knows. It’s always a guess. It’s not like for humans that they said 10,000 steps is generally good for almost everybody. The movements are kind of the same. Dogs have different, different shapes as well, and so you need to know what is good for your dog.
Then the other thing that we learn mainly, and we’re trying to transmit to people, a puppy becomes an adult in 18 months, which is a very short human time. A puppy is about twice as active as an adult. So the activity goes down very quickly and you feel bad because you say, “I’m not able to keep up with activity?” The reality is your puppy is growing, is growing even in weight, and so he’s going to do less points because he’s going to grow bigger. So, while a puppy is small they do a lot of steps and they want to play, so they’re going to come down very quickly over time.
For us, it’s a very fast time and so we don’t realize that. We didn’t have the tools before, and you notice that something is different but you don’t know why. You don’t know if it’s normal. Those are the kinds of things that you learn very quickly when you are using our product.
Ledge: You guys have collected I guess a ton of data. I read from some of your materials that you’ve contributed to a bunch of studies on the academic side. Have you taught researchers things from your data that was not known about this space?
Fabrizio: On this one I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer. We know we have, I believe, more than 30 or 40 universities worldwide using our product for studies. Studies, the one that we participated actively in is the one with Mayo Clinic here in the US. They were trying to understand if a dog in the bed is disrupting your sleep. So they would use a FitBit for the human and FitBark for the dog and send the devices to users and collect the data. Then did the study and see if the dog was having an impact on sleep.
They came out with an answer that is kind of unequivocally no, the dog doesn’t impact your sleep, but they didn’t have my dog in their study so that’s why they came out with.
Ledge: There’s always an outlier, right?
Fabrizio: Yeah. My dog definitely doesn’t let me sleep.
Then there are other studies. They did studies, a healthy human, generally speaking they have more active dogs. There was even a study with a company developing food to relax dogs. So they used the feedback to prove that their food is calming the dog.
Those are the kind of funny studies that I can remember. Then there are many others that, off the top of my head, I can’t remember.
Ledge: Hey, it’s good validation for you guys.
Alright. I like to finish with the lightening round here. I’ve got some questions for you. What book are you reading that you would recommend?
Fabrizio: At the moment I’m trying to learn about MongoDB.
Ledge: MongoDB. Alright. Any particular resource?
Fabrizio: I don’t know. I don’t know the title off the top of my head. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t that ready for that. I have it.
Ledge: No problem. I should warn you beforehand. Alright. What can you not live without?
Fabrizio: A mobile phone. Easy answer. We develop on them so I have it always handy with something open. It’s either that we’re our app during testing or something else.
Ledge: Yeah, no doubt. Important for work and personal.
What’s the last thing that you Googled for work?
Fabrizio: A thing that I Googled? Definitely a hardware part. I don’t remember exactly which one, but I’m always kind of looking into hardware parts, new designing or possible improvements for our product.
Ledge: Got it. Alright. Now this is a big one. This is really important. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Fabrizio: Star Wars. I’m not probably that huge Star Wars fan, but I’m kind of the one that I never really picked up was Star Trek.
Ledge: I’m with you. Alright. Last one. You ready?
Ledge: I don’t know if you ever watched The Office, but there’s a classic episode of The Office where Jim is messing with Dwight and he’s sending him faxes from future Dwight.
I want to know, if I handed you one sheet of paper and one Sharpie, what would you fax back to yourself 10 years ago?
Fabrizio: Ten years ago? That’s a very good question. Ten years ago is about the time I moved to the States. Funny enough, I moved into business from a technical point of view. I kind of regret it because now there is a huge demand, as you know, for developers; software developers and technical knowledge. I believe I kind of missed the learning part of mobile apps and even really now MongoDB, because I realize I don’t know enough about it.
Ledge: You don’t know about SQL, right?
Fabrizio: Well, in my time there was only my SQL kind of stuff, so I know a little bit of that but I never really worked on the data piece.
Ledge: So, what are you going to write to yourself? You have a Sharpie and a paper.
Fabrizio: I’m going to write probably, “Don’t go into business. Try to learn more about mobile and web development since you can.” Now I kind of lost my development touch. I’ve never been a very extremely huge developer, if you want to say that, but now I’ve been out of development for a while.
Ledge: Me too.
Fabrizio: I see a lot of cool stuff out there and I wonder how they do it. That’s why I started going back to the books.
Ledge: Back to the passion.
Ledge: Well, Fabrizio, this has been fun. Thank you for being a good sport, and thanks for sharing the stories. It’s good to have you on.
Fabrizio: Thank you for having me.
Ledge: If people want to know about FitBark, what do they do?
Fabrizio: They can just Google FitBark or go to fitbark.com. You have a lot of information there and a lot of good stuff they can look at.
Ledge: So, everybody get your dog and you healthy at the same time.
Fabrizio: Yeah. Healthy together, we say, and it’s really what we do.
Ledge: Awesome. Thanks for joining us.
Fabrizio: Thank you a lot. Thank you.