From Galway to Fairyhouse and on to Cheltenham, the Irish love affair with horseflesh is legendary. Irritations like recessions briefly become forgotten during occasions like the Galway Races, where grandees have become viral hits on YouTube after being seen on national TV wiping away the rain from their brows with €50 notes.
With the Galway Races now a recent memory and the Discover Ireland Dublin Horse Show climaxing this past Sunday, the equine industry is big business in Ireland, home to some of the world’s most renowned stud farms, trainers and thoroughbreds. It is fitting that now, centuries-old instincts for breeding and training are being augmented in the digital age by young Irish innovators and entrepreneurs with the love of horses in their veins and in their hearts.
Two young technology companies – Equinome and StableLab – are combining the latest digital breakthroughs with life sciences to ensure that stables across the world can pick winners and horses are kept healthy.
In 2009, University College Dublin (UCD) spinout Equinome became world famous when Dr Emmeline Hill, Equinome’s co-founder, published the first description of the gene that contributes to the thoroughbred athletic physique. That gene – the ‘speed gene’ – is a unique strand of DNA that can identify which horses are best suited for different races, such as sprinting, middle distance or long distance.
Equinome’s technology and identification method is in high demand among breeders around the world and last year the company opened a sales and marketing office in Australia to help with its expansion into the Asia-Pacific bloodstock markets.
StableLab is another start-up, led by Dr Heinrich Anhold, and it produces cartridges and handheld mobile devices that allow horse breeders to take blood samples from horses and analyse them on the spot.
In addition to planning to manufacture its own branded devices, StableLab’s technology is also available for both Android and iOS. It can be used as a pre-performance test for racing thoroughbred horses, highlighting when a horse has had an infection, even if no clinical symptoms are present.
Backgrounds with horses
Horses are part of Hill’s and Anhold’s backgrounds – they both grew up around the animals. Hill’s parents bred racehorses and her grandmother was the Irish jockey Charmian Hill, the first female to ride against men under racing rules in Ireland (her licence to ride was taken away when she was 65 because she was considered too old) and whose horse Dawn Run won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1986.
Anhold grew up on a horse farm in Sligo, where his parents keep more than 100 horses. He is also a former international junior show jumper.
“Horses were always part of my life, but I never figured they would become my whole life,” said Hill, who balances being chairman of Equinome with leading the Equine Exercise Genomics research group at UCD, as well as lecturing on equine science. Oh, and she has a young family, to boot.
Dr Anhold on his horse
In the 1980s, Hill’s father observed that as molecular genetics was beginning to take off, nothing of the sort had been attempted for horses. This remained in Emmeline’s mind. Then in 2004, while she was working at UCD on cattle genetics, Science Foundation Ireland put out a call for research proposals. Hill submitted a proposal to establish one of the world’s first academic programmes for researching horse genes and it was accepted.
Hill said she knew there was a niche for this kind of information.
“In the horseracing business, people were paying for information that in many cases didn’t have a scientific basis and I thought there was a gap to be bridged,” Hill said.
In 2009, Hill and her team discovered a strong link between the gene for muscle development and the distance over which a horse performs, that defined which horse would be a better sprinter, middle distance or long-distance racer.
“Like with human sprinters and marathon runners, not all horses are suited to all courses,” Hill said. “We then made the discovery the same year that there was a single gene that decided the best race performance for a horse. If an individual horse was born a sprinter then no amount of training would change that.”
The discovery of the ‘speed gene’ surprised a lot of people until they read the science and Hill and her team believed this was to have a massive effect on the equine industry, she said.
Genetics is here to stay and part of the processes of the equine industry, Hill said, and it doesn’t take away from the horsemanship and the knowledge required to breed, manage and train champion racehorses.
“We add another little bit of the jigsaw and provide hard scientific evidence to help support what people already knew,” said Hill. “Stud farms all over the world are using it and we’ve developed another test for characterising genes related to elite racing performance and evaluate the genetic potential of a horse to perform at the best level.”
In the last four years the genetic information has done what it says on the tin, said Hill. “Horses are racing according to their genetic profiles and breeders are able to more consistently breed the horses they want.”
For Anhold, StableLab evolved out of work he was doing for a PhD in biochemistry.
He secured a patent for his invention in 2010. Fittingly, he raised the seed capital for StableLab by selling his first horse.
Now backed by angel investors, Anhold said it took him at least two years to get the product to a point where he could bring it in front of investors.
“Our core ‘technology’ is a blood test cartridge that tells you quickly whether the horse has an infection or not and can be read with your eye for a semi-quantitative result. If you want a fully quantitative result we have a handheld reader and a smartphone app that gets you full results and opens the door relating to performance, nutrition and training regimes,” Anhold said.
While he was trying to figure out the best way to package the product he spotted an article in Wired magazine criticising how difficult blood tests are to read for anyone but medical staff. Wired had commissioned three design companies to re-imagine how human blood tests could be presented.
Inspired by this, Anhold got in touch with one of the companies, a New York-based firm called Mucca, and they got to work designing an app with an easy-to- read results interface.
“What we’ve achieved is making it possible to better understand what to do with a horse, making the right decisions on the spot and improving how breeders and trainers manage their horses.”
Testing the tech
Just like with Equinome, StableLab found a willing testbed in the stables of world-class thoroughbred trainer Jim Bolger. StableLab was also able to test its technology at the stud farm of Martin Pipe, the retired UK trainer, as well as a large equine hospital in Kentucky, USA.
“The key to our technology is the biomarkers and we calibrated the test to ensure that it provides a visual and intuitive result so people can understand instantly what to do if a horse is unwell.”
Both Equinome and StableLab are part of Enterprise Ireland’s equine group and both have developed products that are primed for export.
Donal Ryan, Equinome’s managing director, said the company is growing quickly and apart from an initial seed investment, has been growing organically year on year.
“We are adding tools to approaches that have been developed over centuries – these allow (breeders) to compare genes determined to be relevant to athletic performance on large numbers of horses, be more precise and understand how different genes contribute to different functions or traits of horses. In the near future we expect to be able to provide full genome sequencing,” Ryan said. “With 95pc certainty you can guarantee whether a horse will not run past a mile if it is of a certain genetic type. This helps breeders and owners manage risk and maximise their return on what could be a significant investment.”
Across the world
All of Equinome’s revenue is being reinvested in the company, said Ryan. The firm has set up a base in Australia and it has licensed its technologies to Japan. “We are now working with the leading studs, trainers and owners in every racing region in the world,” Ryan said.
For StableLab, the company’s move into electronic hardware is being supercharged by the appointment of Vincent Mouret, a seasoned veteran of the semiconductor industry.
“This is only the beginning for us,” Anhold said. “We have more cartridges in development to identify common ailments in performing horses but we will essentially have an integrated ecosystem that will collect data and store it and allow owners and breeders to access it via their smartphones.”
Anhold said many people told him this would never work and that blood tests were the wrong approach for finding a problem with horses.
“We used existing technologies that were out there and we were creative with them,” he said. “What Dropbox has done with the cloud, we’ve done the same thing only for life sciences for horses and I don’t think anybody has done that before.”
Anhold said StableLab already has 10 private investors on board and is not looking for follow-on investment at this point. “We will be able to grow organically. We’re taking a tech start-up approach in the life sciences space. It is challenging but we think it will be rewarding.”
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 11 August