Dottie Burkemper’s cats were driving her crazy back in 2014. Burkemper, who is in her 90s, couldn’t keep her feline companions from stealing her dentures and hiding them behind her furniture at her home in south St. Louis County. So, she reached out to her friend’s son, Mike Saigh, who had been an inventor for 40 years as well as a business professor.
She brought two of her dentures to Saigh in hopes of finding a solution to her problem.
“I knew there wasn’t much I could do,” Saigh said of Burkemper’s denture dilemma. “But it got me to think, ‘How can a smart mouth guard or smart retainer utilize smart data from saliva?’”
Saigh’s previous inventions involve video on demand, books on demand and technologies that protect and manage digital rights. His products and patents range from wireless hospital information technology and automated logistical distribution for the retail industry to alternative energy technologies and a personal security app for cell phones, among others.
He discussed this question with engineer Shower Zhang, with whom he’d worked on a previous project. Zhang is a chemical engineer with an MBA from Peking University, a major research university in Beijing, China, and she loves working with analytics. She has experience in a variety of fields and won an IT innovation award from the American Feed Association, an association that represents companies in the animal feed industry.
Initially, Saigh and Zhang believed they could adapt smart technology for human athletes to monitor biometrics such as hydration levels, but they soon realized the technology wouldn’t work within the small confines of a human mouth.
They also realized, however, that they could use that kind of technology in the much larger mouth of a horse, using a bit to provide biometric data in real time for competitive horse owners. That led Saigh and Zhang to found Equine Smartbits, which they believe will change the way competitive horse owners, jockeys and veterinarians monitor their horses and predict how they will perform. They plan to introduce the bits for sale this fall.
“Sometimes the best ideas have strange and humble beginnings,” Zhang said, laughing.
A horse bit — usually made of metal or a synthetic material — is placed in the mouth of a horse to allow the rider to communicate with the horse. A bridle holds the bit in place, and the rider uses reins to control the bit and direct the horse.
Zhang and Saigh found that while modern horse bits have been around for approximately 3,400 years, not a lot about their design has changed since their inception.
“We found there was no [solid] data in the equine industry. So we thought we could embed sensors into an existing horse bit, so there is no additional equipment,” Zhang said. “We can measure horse biometrics in real time and collect scientific data on how the horse performs.”
The company’s patented, one-of-a-kind Smartbit enables a horse’s owner to monitor the horse by measuring its body temperature, heart rate, blood-oxygen levels and motion. It then sends the data from the bit to a cell phone or tablet device via Bluetooth. Once the data is on the user’s mobile device, it is uploaded to the cloud through wi-fi.
“So this is the first fundamental change in the history of equines. That’s really exciting,” said Saigh, the company’s CEO.
Zhang and Saigh founded their company in August 2016. By then, Zhang had known Saigh for several years, since meeting him through a mutual acquaintance when Saigh was working on a smart-watch design with a Chinese company and needed translation help.
Neither entrepreneur had any experience in the equine industry prior to their first meeting in 2015 to brainstorm about the product they envisioned.
“Then this [idea] just came along, and the more we studied the more we realized the potential in this market. Everyone we talked to in the equine industry got excited and said that is exactly what they needed. We received overwhelming support,” Zhang said. “The more we learned, the more we got excited — and now we are horse lovers.”
Bryce Theby, chief hardware engineer for Equine Smartbits, met Saigh through volunteer work. Soon after, he joined Saigh and Zhang while he was an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Their company headquarters is located at T-Rex, a nonprofit technology startup incubator in downtown St. Louis.
“After just a couple of months, we proved the concept, exactly how to embed the electronics,” Theby said. “. . . Through a long and grueling process, we have come a long way, and we have come up with a product that rivals any electronic device.”
That process involved numerous incremental phases and redesigns, including switching early on from their original wired design to one that functions wirelessly, which is much easier to use with a horse, Zhang said.
The company obtained support from local trainers, doctors, veterinarians and local horse owners who allowed them to test the bit on horses and helped them to perfect the technology.
Saigh noted that not all of those phases and redesigns were electrical; some involved the physical design of the bit and the horses’ reaction to it. For instance, at one point they tested a design in which the electronics inside the bit were stacked to make the bit horizontally thinner but vertically higher.
None of the test horses, located in Missouri and Illinois,ould keep that bit in their mouths, Saigh said.
They continued to improve the design until they found the sweet spot between design and functionality.
Saigh, Zhang and Theby have used several regional resources to get Equine Smartbits off the ground. Among them is the IT Entrepreneur Network in St. Louis, which provides programs and access to guidance from experienced entrepreneurs for rapid development of tech ventures.
Stephen Von Rump, an entrepreneurial resident with ITEN, joined the Equine Smartbits team to provide additional entrepreneurial support as the company geared up to start selling its product in the third quarter of 2019.
“I’m here for mostly business and technological-oversight planning. My job is to get them ready for professional development money,” he said.
“The challenge of the startup is you don’t have a lot of money and you don’t have a lot of resources. You have to be everything, do everything. [Von Rump] has helped us a lot,” said Zhang, who also is the company’s chief operating officer.
Von Rump pointed to several compelling equine-industry statistics that, he said, suggest a real business opportunity for Equine Smartbits.
“There are 17 million competition horses in the world, and 10,000 race horses are euthanized every year because of injury or other problems that are caused by a lack of knowledge by the trainer and vet about what’s going on [with the horse],” he said. “It’s a huge problem in competition . . . so I think they’re addressing an important problem.”
Zhang also pointed to a potential use of Equine Smartbits beyond the racing and competition world: monitoring the health of carriage horses. She said the Illinois legislature previously considered a bill to ban the use of horse-drawn carriages, which some believe to be cruel to the horse.
“This is just a speculation. There is no data to prove [whether it’s cruel] one way or another,” Zhang said. “[A] carriage company reached out to us to prove one way or the other. None of us know, but we will actually know in a few months after we collect the data.”
Added Von Rump: “It’s a win either way because it’s just a debate right now.”
In addition to ITEN’s assistance, Equine Smartbits was one of 20 new businesses to receive an Arch Grant in 2018, which awards $50,000 equity-free cash grants and support services to startups located in St. Louis for at least one year.
“I think it’s one of the greatest things that has happened,” Saigh said. “The networking [and] the support has just been remarkable.
Saigh said the company’s first product and analytics system should be available to purchase for $750 by the end of October, if all goes according to plan.
“We’ve been self-funded, and the reason [for that is] we wanted that kind of control, but at this point we’ve had more people who want to invest in this than we can take right now,” he said. “They are from all over the place, so we are going to pick and choose the investors that understand the industry, that have a love for the horses, that have their own horses at Fairmont [Park and] at The [Kentucky] Derby. We are going to work with people like that, rather than an investor that is just a venture capitalist. That’s going to happen very soon.”
The Smartbit is similar in appearance to any other bit one might use on a horse, except the center of the mechanism is encased in a clear, bulletproof shell revealing a small circuit board.
It syncs with a Bluetooth-enabled tablet or phone, which is stationed 30 feet or less from the bit to relay information it gathers from the horse. The tablet or phone then uploads that data to cloud-based storage.
The bit’s battery will last at least eight hours before it needs to be removed from the horse’s mouth and recharged. Once the product is available for purchase, Zhang and Saigh said, a subscription service for data analysis will be an optional add-on.
Some users may choose to purchase and use it without a subscription, which will allow them to see and track their horses’ biometrics. But for professional users, such as veterinarians, jockeys and competitors, the subscription service will provide analytics, a historical log, location, speed and other data collected over time by the Smartbit.
Saigh said Equine Smartbits has received support from the industry because it is the first such product to make real-time, scientific measurements available to horse owners.
“You can see [the horse’s] anxiety level . . . how it’s changed for the better or the worst. You can be alerted if something is off. All of that data can be analyzed to make the thoroughbred more competitive but also [to treat it] more humanely. We believe that it will create a comparative advantage, but also we can . . . really understand how we can save horses’ lives,” Saigh said.
At one point, the team began working on a wireless bit that contained nine sensors, but that number of sensors created electronic interference, prompting them to back down to four sensors, Zhang said. It may be possible to include nine sensors, but the entire bit would have to be redesigned, she said.
For now, the current design will allow horse owners and veterinarians to measure a horse’s body temperature, heart rate, blood-oxygen levels and motion.
As the three gear up to offer their product to customers, Saigh said they haven’t given up on applying the technology for humans as well. He said they’re headed towards being able to test the saliva of humans as a noninvasive way of testing glucose levels.
“Saliva could take the place of pricking a finger,” Saigh said, although he noted that technology will require several years of research before it can be used.
As for the Smartbit, ongoing development could mean expanding its capabilities by adding the ability to measure a horse’s lactic acid and other organic acid levels, and by creating algorithms to correlate all of the data collected to identify secondary trends in the horses’ health.
Saigh, Zhang and Theby said they are grateful and appreciative of help they’ve received from the local horse owners who allowed them to test the Smartbits on their horses and shared insights they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
“We just have had so many endless people who have been so gracious and the expertise here we can’t match anywhere in the world — that’s how good they are and how passionate they are about horses,” Saigh said, laughing as he recounted how a researcher at the University of Missouri put the Smartbit in his own mouth the day after it was tested on a horse just to see how it worked.
As for Burkemper, the woman who sparked the idea for their revolutionary technology? Saigh said she solved her problem by receiving permanent denture implants.
He chuckled: “So she’s happy, too.”