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Where ideas take root

The Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy is training the next generation of veterinary business leaders.

Where ideas take root
Now heading into its fourth year, the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy has more applicants than ever and more startups and established companies wanting to be involved.

Inspiration for the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy began in the fall of 2010 when Adam Little, then a student at Ontario Veterinary College, had an idea to help veterinary practices connect with their clients through a mobile app. While most of his colleagues were studying physiology, Little was learning about prototyping, pitching and product development.

His motivation was clear: If our profession was trying to help as many patients as possible, we should invest our time and energy in enhancing our systems of care as much as enhancing individual patient care.

Through that journey, two things became clear:

  • The skills and experiences one needs to turn an idea into business reality are incredibly valuable regardless of the veterinary career direction one chooses.
  • The education and support needed to develop those skills were lacking.

Texas A&M’s Involvement

Fast forward to 2015. Dr. Adam Little and Dr. Eleanor Green, Texas A&M’s veterinary college dean, sat down to discuss how to bridge the gaps. They wanted students to realize that running a business, whether a traditional veterinary clinic or a business developing a new product, is more than just a hassle. Running a business, they knew, can be a source of great pride and deep satisfaction. They knew that tomorrow’s veterinarians would need to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and innovative spirit.

That’s when the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy was born.

The first cohort saw five Texas A&M veterinary students working alongside startup companies that were developing novel solutions for the animal health market. The solutions ranged from on-demand veterinary services to genetic testing and new diagnostics platforms. The students collaborated with startup teams from San Francisco to Tel Aviv.

The experience, pairing a virtual academic curriculum with an immersive summer internship, launched a multiyear program that continues to grow to this day. The initial pilot produced students who were more confident in their ability to navigate the business world as veterinarians. Having gained an understanding of entrepreneurial business principles, these students felt more capable of having an outsized positive impact on the profession, whether by running their own business or being part of the veterinary startup community.

No Boundaries

From Day One, the model was designed to be scalable and sustainable. The goal is to enable any student, regardless of geography, to participate in a program that’s growing the next generation of veterinary business leaders. We expanded the program the following year to more schools and more companies. The model involves a three-way partnership between veterinary colleges, pet health companies and veterinary students, with the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy (VEA) supporting all three.

The veterinary colleges directly support their students through a $5,000 stipend, the companies support VEA’s management and administration with another $5,000, and the VEA provides the curriculum, mentorship and guidance for the students.

Embedding students in startup companies proved to be one of the greatest ways to build the students’ confidence and help them overcome the uncertainties of the startup world. Students became comfortable in their discomfort of not knowing the answer. Instead of requiring 100 percent certainty, students came to understand that business is about achieving perhaps 60 percent certainty and running with it.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s claim that “building a startup is like jumping off a cliff with a box of airplane parts and building the plane on the way down” is a pretty accurate description of what some of the students went through. But after a few jumps, they got used to the uncertainty. They learned a series of approaches to comprehending problems, conducting customer interviews, performing market research and understanding the viability of their product.

In the third year, student applications and school partnerships increased. Schools became more comfortable providing the $5,000 stipend to their students, and more companies saw the value of incorporating the perspective of a veterinary professional into their organization early on. Many of those early students continue to work part time with their companies, and some were hired full time after graduation.

Endless Opportunities

What do students take away from the VEA? Here’s 2018 VEA alumna and Texas A&M student Brianna Boyle: “The VEA showed me that the opportunities with a DVM degree are endless. I now have the tools that will allow me to follow through with any vision or business idea that I am passionate about. The program gave me a new sense of fulfillment with my veterinary career and a knowledge base to make anything possible.”

A few students said the VEA literally changed their lives. Much like Dr. Little found during his time in veterinary school, putting yourself out there and doing something different with your veterinary degree can be difficult. Creating a community of support was critical to helping students move outside their comfort zone. In doing so, we are creating a diverse community of voices and perspectives.

The students realized they were not alone and that they were part of a larger community of like-minded, forward-thinking veterinary professionals who wanted to shape the next generation of veterinary medicine. While those of us involved with the VEA are incredibly proud of these students and happy with the outcomes, we get just as much out of the experience as they do. It has provided us with a renewed faith and optimism for the future of veterinary medicine. Just like these students, the future we envision is indeed bright.

What the Future Holds

Now heading into its fourth year, the VEA has more applicants than ever and more startups and established companies wanting to be involved. We’ve expanded the program to include businesses that have a role for intrapreneurs within the company. We’ve also expanded partnerships to include larger institutions like the Veterinary Business Management Association, and we’re in the early stages of talks with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges to see how we can work together on entrepreneurial education.

In addition, we’re grateful for the support from early adopters like Dr. Linda Lord at Merck, as we’ve been able to fund a closing event that brings students together to meet and share their experiences.

The veterinary community has provided so much support for the program. We recently brought on Dr. Robert Trimble to help as program director and Texas A&M’s Jeremy Kenny to provide logistical support. Into the fall we’ll be working with VetPrep and the Idea contest, giving students the opportunity to develop products in a space that provides healthy competition.

The VEA was developed to train the next generation of veterinary business leaders and give them the tools and motivation to build the future in which they want to practice. While we are at the earliest stages of achieving this ultimate goal, the first steps are inspiring. We believe in building a progressive, optimistic and passionate profession that sees our challenges as opportunities to grow collectively.

You can learn more about the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy at VEA.vet.

Innovation Station columnist Dr. Aaron Massecar is executive director of the Veterinary Innovation Council and co-chair of the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy advisory board. He also is assistant director of continuing education at Colorado State University’s Translational Medicine Institute.