Lightbulb on a background of hand drawn illustrations representing innovation

How you can apply creativity in problem-solving to develop innovative thinking

Our working world has recently faced a constantly changing environment. From new digital technology and the boom in remote working, to altered market and legal conditions such as Brexit, growing environmental concerns and of course the Covid pandemic.

Responding to such changes requires fresh thinking and for people to question established ways of working as well as, the processes, structures and protocols governing products and services and whole business models.

However, the creativity needed to generate innovative responses is hard to magically switch on like the proverbial lightbulb moment that is so often used to visualise it!

Figure 1: Easy to draw, but hard to do!

Instead, we see creativity like a muscle – something that requires exercise and training to build both strength and agility..  And, just as preparing for a workout in a gym should involve warm-up exercises like stretching, we advocate doing something similar when preparing to ‘workout’  our creativity.  A simple mindfulness exercise gives us permission to be present and engage for the duration of our creative endeavours. 

To develop your creative ability, we encourage a range of different techniques in ideation workshops – These are sessions that aim to build creative confidence and introduce people to ways of thinking that can stretch their creative capacity.  We typically introduce problem statements for issues that anyone attending a session could relate to, e.g. How might we encourage children to read more? or How might we encourage people to use public transport more?

By using these broad, abstract problems, people can participate and contribute, without the risk of feeling self-conscious that they might lack sufficient contextual knowledge of a business problem while amongst their peers.

Of the many creative techniques that exist, we recommend using a range that extends from free association at one extreme, to more structured association at the other.

Examples of free association creativity techniques

Word association has its origins in psychiatry and dates back over 100 years. It focuses on creating a list of unrelated (or unintentionally related) words, allowing the stream of consciousness to develop the list, and perhaps from the sub-conscious that is rarely recognised. Our adapted version takes a defined problem statement and tasks participants to practice using these seemingly spontaneous words to link back to the problem at hand. 

These then conjure connections purely from a word and their imagination, perhaps to describe a feature of the problem, an emotion that springs from it, or even a potential solution to the problem. In the words of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

You can read more about word association in this article.

Creative Storytelling is a technique which provides participants with a context setting – for instance the Wild West – and requires each person to assume a persona, such as the Sherriff, the Preacher, The Saloon Owner and so on. They take it in turns to improvise and narrate a story and handover to another person at any point; interweaving elements of the problem statement at different points within the story as they choose.

The power and fun(!) of this technique lies in this improvisational style – as participants steadily immerse themselves in their assigned character, they tend to grow in confidence to speak up for themselves – trying to persuade and inspire others to their characters’ point of view. You might find that other participants borrow from earlier ideas and describe how their own persona can extend them further (or make them better – it can become quite competitive!).

Throughout the session, participants are constantly finding new links between their character and the problem statement, often with an emotional connection they never knew existed until minutes earlier.

This technique is widely used by emergency services who then go on to role-play real problems using different job roles within the organisation. It helps teams to recognise that all actions have consequences, and consequences help us to see these actions from a different perspective.

You can read more about creative storytelling in this article.

Examples of structured and semi-structured association creativity techniques

Metaphors provides both a problem statement to work with and a metaphor from which to see the issue. For instance, participants might be asked “If the problem was a vehicle, what might it be?” The light structured suggestion of a vehicle anchors individuals to a familiar concept, but still provides wide scope for interpretation – is it a road vehicle, like a car or truck, or something historical such as a horse and cart? Is it carrying people, goods, or symbolism? Who is driving it? A few semi-structured, facilitator-led questions can quickly help participants to recognise features and benefits of their imagined vehicle that might convert or relate to the problem in some way. Of all the creativity tools, this simple technique often has surprisingly fast results, opening ideas for innovation in otherwise long-established modes of operation.

Read more here about metaphorical thinking.

S-C-A-M-P-E-R is a structured approach for brainstorming. It tasks participants to address the problem head on, but to use Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse each in turn to explore how changes to existing product or service solutions could impact the problem. For example:

  • How could two services that are difficult to communicate be combined into a single offer?
  • How could a process that was designed to support face-to-face interactions be adapted for online provision?
  • Or even put to an entirely new use altogether?

Covid restrictions suddenly imposed upon an industry was an ideal opportunity for how S-C-A-M-P-E-R could inspire fresh, creative thinking which led  to quickly deployed innovation.

Learn more about the S-C-A-M-P-E-R Technique for Creative Thinking.

Whichever creativity exercises are undertaken, almost all benefit from team development, which build upon and connect to each other’s ideas.  This practice is helped by drawing upon the expertise of a diverse range of individuals. In a face-to-face business context, this might include people with different roles within a single organisation, with varying years of experience and/or personal backgrounds. More recent virtual workshops add the potential of bringing together those from different countries, even combining languages, using icons/emojis or universal terms.

In building out an idea iteratively from different sources, groups tend to create a wider range of solutions. This divergent form of idea generation often develops alternative versions or variations on a theme. In creativity workshops, the goal is not to judge such ideas, but to encourage their arrival – to grow people’s confidence in their own innate creativity.

Note: within the wider process of Design Thinking principles, we recommend a follow-on stage of idea evaluation and assessment, to choose the most promising ideas to take forward into storyboarding and ultimately prototyping or testing.

Perhaps most of all, we should try to facilitate a sense of fun and an engaging atmosphere to work in.

We can all develop and train our creativity ability. The use of targeted exercises and techniques can give teams and individuals the opportunity to develop new ideas, test new ways of thinking and become more innovative in their problem-solving.  In developing our creativity, we also learn to acknowledge and celebrate our own uniqueness, diversity and self-expression and find a way to create something from our personal feelings and experiences.

Classroom scene with professionals sat around a table with laptops and an instructor standing by a flipchart

Intrapreneurship – encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in employees

With a recent survey of 2,000 employed British workers finding that 64% wanted to start their own business[1], entrepreneurialism is certainly a desired destination for careers in the 21st Century. This isn’t set to change either. Generation Z (roughly those born between 1995 and 2010) grew up with the internet, social media and mobile phones, and were the first to truly benefit from society’s gearshift from analogue to digital. They are natives of the digital era, where unrivalled access to information and ability to influence makes it unsurprising that 80% of Gen Zs surveyed want to start their own business, according to the same survey[2]

Whilst the attractions of profit potential, flexible working hours and being your own boss are certainly all very much desirable features of working life, unfortunately time, money and resource (or lack of it) holds many budding businesspeople back, and there are some fields that are notoriously difficult to crack. This is where another success-propelling strategy comes into play: intrapreneurship.

What is an intrapreneur?

Originally coined in the 1980s, intrapreneurship is defined as entrepreneurial creativity and innovation within large, established organisations[3]. Think Mark Zuckerberg as an entrepreneur for creating Facebook, while Justin Rosenstein is an intrapreneur for creating Facebook’s ‘like’ button. In theory, it benefits both employers and employees: employers can foster innovation and gain value whilst employees can be creative with more resources and less risk. In practice, there’s a little more involved and more commitment is required from all parties, however, with such statistics showing the nation’s true entrepreneurial spirit, intrapreneurialism is certainly a tool that businesses should have on board.

Intrapreneurialism in action

If you think of innovative companies, you’ll most likely come up with the same names: Apple, Sony, Dyson, Facebook, Amazon etc. – household names that we all interact with near daily. These are well-known to have working environments that foster innovation and encourage employees to come to the table with ideas and concepts. Intrapreneurialism is what makes these companies who they are. Intrapreneurialism empowers employees to think like an entrepreneur.

As John Maxwell (author and leadership expert) says, teamwork makes the dream work. No entrepreneur can do it by themselves, so one shouldn’t mistake an intrapreneur for a lone ranger. There are many cogs to a business machine: management, sales, marketing, accounting, procurement, health & safety, HR, legal etc. In order to make change – or to innovate – one needs multiple departments and people on board, working with a common aim. This means that intrapreneurialism needs to be considered within a wider range of innovation in the workplace.

Closer to home

The UK medical sector has seen an incredible response to intrapreneurship following the 2017 establishment of The NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme. One of the visions of the programme is to equip frontline staff with skills, knowledge and experience from the commercial and start-up sector to become intrapreneurs, and address some of the great challenges the healthcare sector faces.

In the animal health sector, advancing technologies such as telemedicine, health devices, app-based services, artificial intelligence and genomic sequencing all present veterinary practices with huge opportunities for improving services through different types of innovation. The space here for intrapreneurs to shape and mould 21st century veterinary care is vast; although managers and business owners need to incentivise their workforces to step up to this challenge.




Lightbulb on a background of hand drawn illustrations representing innovation

Innovation – one word, infinite possibilities

When you think of the word ‘innovation’, what immediately springs to mind? Big name brands behind our smartphones and other smart devices? A good concept but something that just ‘isn’t possible’ in your field? Just another tedious and overused business buzzword? No matter how you see it – the reality is that real innovation is critical in modern business.

We’re going to try and break down the vague word that is ‘innovation’ and understand how we can apply it to our own circumstances.

So, what is it?

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean inventing a product or improving a process, as is the common misconception. By definition, it is ‘making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products[1].’ It doesn’t have to be a lightbulb moment (unless you’re Thomas Edison), it can be slow-burning and incremental, as long as the result is a new way of creating value for the business. It can apply to your business model and its processes, your product / service line, your brand, how you engage with customers – any aspect of your business can be innovated.

Business theorists contend over how many different types of innovation there are. After a quick web search, you can count up almost 20 different kinds, but a common way to categorise innovation is by referring to the Innovation Matrix. This details four specific areas of innovation:

  1. Architectural – combining technological and business model disruptions. Taking an approach/ technology/ process/ lesson/ skill from one field and applying it to another eg film camera manufacturers entering the digital market.
  2. Radical – the ‘invention’ of new industries/ technologies/ applications for example biotechnology in medicine, or the smartphone in communications. This is purely technological and ‘reinvents’ the way things are done.
  3. Incremental – smaller tweaks and enhancements across multiple areas that result in substantial improvements whilst fitting in with the existing business model and competencies eg tech companies continuously developing more powerful processors.
  4. Disruptive / Stealth – creating a new value network i.e. an alternative way of offering value in a market. The polar opposite of radical innovation. For example, video on demand and streaming services overtaking the DVD rental market.

Credit: Callan Hough (

You may have also heard of social innovation, sustainability innovation, entrepreneurial innovation – the list goes on. Some of these types of innovation are limited to sectors. For example, social innovation is most commonly seen in non-profit and government sectors; this is why it’s useful to consider the Innovation Matrix, which is valid across all business.  

When considering the field of veterinary science and care, it certainly feels as though we’re in a time of impending innovation. Of course, Covid-19 has had a huge and unexpected impact on the way we live and do business, however this change was already imminent. People are busier, have more access to information and have more pets than ever before – and this certainly influences pet care. How the industry adapts to these consumer demands will almost definitely define the future of veterinary practices nationwide.

What are the benefits?

It may seem a silly question to ask, but what benefits come from innovation? Everyone knows innovation is good – it generates more value, more money, creates new ideas and so on – but what is the further breakdown of benefits?  

Innovation increases employee productivity and managers who promote an innovative environment see increased value. People tend to perform better when they are encouraged to push boundaries and think outside the box. It empowers people to have a positive attitude to working rather than toeing lines and checking boxes. Employees are more motivated, creative and are stronger team players, especially when their work is recognised. An innovative workplace certainly enriches workplace culture.

Fostering innovation

Innovation is something that can and should be fostered in all workplaces. Managers should encourage innovation from their staff in all aspects of business operations because successful innovation drives growth (both financial and personal). One should be receptive to new ideas and changes in custom, whilst also effectively managing the day-to-day processes and tasks which need to be completed for business success. It’s a fine balance.

  • Be open minded – be receptive to fresh ideas as this is where innovation usually arises.
  • Think laterally – indirect and creative approaches can surpass traditional step-by-step methods.
  • Expect and accept mistakes along the way – it’s not all going to work, and credit should be given for those that try, even if they fail.

An innovation strategy

Much like all aspects of business, you need a strategy to innovate effectively. If you have all the ideas but no method of realising them, then your innovation will go to waste. Make sure you clearly define and clarify your objectives and priorities, how your different departments will support this, what your budget will look like, timelines, milestones, potential problems etc. Just like any changes to the norm, there should be a plan in place to guide you.

Telemedicine, stem cell therapies, pet health monitors, app-based pet care management, pricing initiatives, AI-supported disease management: these innovations are happening in the sector and will only continue to drive further innovation as the landscape of animal care changes.

Further reading:


Anthony Roberts, former RCVS Director of Leadership and Innovation

ViVet reflections

Anthony Roberts MA (Hons), MBA, DipCIPR, MCIPR, FRSAFormer RCVS Director of Leadership and Innovation

Anthony led the ViVet programme and was responsible for the delivery of the RCVS strategic ambition to become a Royal College with leadership and innovation at its heart. Anthony holds an MBA with Distinction from Warwick Business School, where he focussed his studies on strategy, entrepreneurship and organisational behaviour. Anthony Roberts has since left the RCVS and now works as Director of PRI Academy at Principles for Responsible Investment.

In his parting blog, Anthony reflects on the first three years of the ViVet project and the need for regulators to take a proactive approach to innovation has never been greater.

The animal health industry is experiencing a period of unprecedented change: new technologies are developing exponentially, new business models are emerging and investment is flowing into the sector. Meanwhile, we are closer to our pets than ever before and want to treat their health like we would any other member of our family.

In recent months Covid-19 led to veterinary professionals rapidly adapting and using technology so that they could continue to provide critical animal health and welfare services, even in the midst of a global pandemic, thus further hastening the pace of change in the sector. As a consequence, the veterinary professions are on the verge of an innovation revolution and, over the next decade, they will see more change than they have over the last 50 years.

Telehealth, wearable and implantable devices, artificial intelligence and big data, for example, potentially present veterinary professionals with opportunities to improve the veterinary services they provide, engage with their clients and facilitate access to veterinary care.  

The Vet Futures research warned, however, that ‘vets could miss out, if they failed to be proactive about grasping the opportunities’ innovation brings. Veterinary professionals therefore need to demonstrate they ‘not only welcome but are driving, innovation in animal health’.

Traditionally, regulators have shied away from engaging with innovation perhaps for fear of the risk it inherently entails, but regulators do not engage with innovation, then emerging technology and business models will develop regardless, leaving consumers unprotected whilst regulators play catch up.

In the current period of rapid technological change, the old approach is no longer working.  ’Anticipatory regulation’ is becoming accepted as best practice, in which regulators take a proactive approach to innovation, engaging stakeholders about the issues it raises and seeking to create future-proof frameworks which, in rapidly changing markets, will protect the public whilst at the same time fostering innovation.

For this reason, three years ago the RCVS launched ViVet, an ambitious and wide-ranging programme designed to support and foster innovation in the veterinary sector. ViVet is driven by the mission of ‘enabling creative veterinary solutions for the good of animal health and welfare’.

Building on the inaugural Symposium, held at Warwick Business School in the Shard, London, in the first year ViVet focused on showcasing innovation to help veterinary professionals to horizon-scan, and understand the impact of innovation, how the market is evolving and the opportunities innovation could provide.

The second year saw ViVet provide practical support to help veterinary professionals drive innovation. This featured online resources and in-person events, including a series of innovation workshops hosted in Cambridge and an innovation evening at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus. The year concluded with the second Innovation Symposium, this time focusing on Precision Veterinary Medicine and the move to a new age of data-driven practice.

Since launch, ViVet has published numerous expert blogs and case studies from thought-leaders, been invited to contribute to national and international conferences and publications, grown a significant following and influence on social media, and met with innovators from within and outwith the profession, seeking guidance on how to develop their ideas, maximise their impact, and comply with regulation.

The programme has been applauded by veterinary regulators globally and has expanded the reach and influence of the RCVS, leading to wider conversations about how regulators could manage innovation on a global level.

ViVet has had more tangible benefits too, helping veterinary professionals to launch new businesses and those outside to engage with the profession to refine the products and services they are developing, so as to better serve the needs of the profession and animal health.

Whilst like many business Covid-19 significantly disrupted ViVet’s planned programme of events for 2020, the pandemic has further demonstrated the resilience of the veterinary profession and capacity of veterinary professionals to innovate and lead change. It has also highlighted the importance of a regulator that can adapt to a changing world, as demonstrated by the RCVS when it provided up-to-date advice on how veterinary professionals should work during the pandemic, temporarily allowed the remote prescribing of POM-V medicines so that animals could still receive much needed treatment during lockdown, and engaged with the profession to understand the economic impact of Covid-19 on veterinary businesses.

As I leave the RCVS and the veterinary sector, the need for the ViVet programme and a proactive regulatory approach to innovation has never been greater. The next ten years will see profound changes in veterinary medicine and there will be disruption to existing business models. Nevertheless, if the veterinary professions lead and embrace this change and regulators, such as the RCVS, adapt to the changing market, there will be unprecedented opportunities to improve the quality, efficacy and accessibility of veterinary care.

Rob Harrand

The algorithm will see you now

Deep Learning and the upcoming automation revolution

Turn on the radio or browse social media today and you’ll likely be bombarded with a slew of terms like big data, algorithms and predictive analytics. Amidst the frenzy of buzz words and hyperbole are a spectrum of opinions on the potential of such technologies, ranging from critical reviews of existing applications all the way to apocalyptical predictions of machines enslaving humanity.

At the time of writing, the hottest topic is an area of artificial intelligence called machine-learning. This is a process where computers can take a set of data, learn something from it, and then change their behaviour accordingly. In other words, they can act in ways without being explicitly told how.

Within the field of machine-learning, the area grabbing the headlines is that of deep learning, a technology proving itself in a number of fields with incredible performance on challenges that were once intractable to anything but the human mind.

Learning to See

The first sign of deep learning’s power came in 2012, when the winning team in an image recognition competition[1] used it to beat the previous accuracy record by a wide margin. Since then, deep learning has been unleashed on problems from self-driving cars[2] and language translation[3] to finding signals from extra-terrestrials[4].

In healthcare, deep learning is already making inroads into several areas, including drug discovery[5], treatment recommendations and personalised medicine[6]. However, perhaps the biggest area of impact so far has been in computer vision, with several studies now showing human-like levels of performance (if not better) in spotting disease in medical scans. Dozens of papers can be found in the literature, dealing with radiographs[7], CT scans[8], MRI scans[9] and cytology images[10], across applications such as disease detection and classification, to organ segmentation.

Under the Hood

The core concept underlying deep learning’s ability is something called a neural network. This is a mathematical model that takes a number of inputs along with a known outcome, combines them in certain ways and learns how much emphasis or weight to place on each input throughout the network in order to get the correct result.

As an example, take predicting whether or not a patient will respond to a certain type of treatment. The inputs could be things like their age, sex, blood pressure, etc. The deep learning network would be given training data comprised of many (typically thousands at a minimum) examples of patient information along with whether or not they responded to the treatment. The neural network would then attempt to incrementally adjust the weights for each input until it minimised the number of outcomes it classified incorrectly. This model, once trained, could then make predictions on future cases.

The Future

The industrial revolution took jobs away from people that involved manual labour. Deep learning is set to do the same for jobs involving mental labour. Exactly what this means for the future of any industry is unclear, but the best way forwards has to be for as many people as possible to be up to speed with the basic workings of whatever disruptive technology comes their way.

As a consequence, professionals such as vets can be on the inside of such events; understanding, reacting and guiding the process as much as the pace of change allows.

In short, deep learning is here to stay and the future of healthcare will have a level of systemic automation undreamt of today. The question is, what skills should the next generation of vets be focussing on that are the least likely to be affected by such a change?

Rob Harrand (pictured) is a data scientist at Avacta Animal Health, where he works on general data analysis, the development of machine learning algorithms, and helps the wider team to make better use of their data. He uses the R programming language and data management best practices to create an environment of reproducible research at the company. His background is in physics and engineering, with degrees from the universities of York and Leeds.


  1. ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge (ILSVRC)
  2. End-to-End Deep Learning for Self-Driving Cars
  3. Google Neural Machine Translation
  4. Artificial Intelligence Helps Find New Fast Radio Bursts
  5. The rise of deep learning in drug discovery
  6. IBM Watson for Oncology
  7. Deep Learning at Chest Radiography: Automated Classification of Pulmonary Tuberculosis by Using Convolutional Neural Networks
  8. Classification of CT brain images based on deep learning networks
  9. Deep learning predictions of survival based on MRI in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  10. DeepPap: Deep Convolutional Networks for Cervical Cell Classification

Stacee Santi

From veterinarian to entrepreneur

Stacee Santi, DVM, CEO/Founder Vet2Pet

He said “You’ll have to become an Apple Developer”.
I said, “I have no idea how to do that, but it can’t be harder than veterinary school”.
And so the journey began.

As a practicing veterinarian, working tirelessly to help animals be healthier, I was becoming very frustrated at the fact that the majority of my clients weren’t giving their parasite prevention monthly. The big reveal always came when I prescribed their summer 6-pack of parasiticide and they would disclose they still had some from last summer. I’m no infectious disease specialist but I do know that most medications don’t work if you don’t take them. I’ll be honest, I was bitter about it. If you’re a veterinarian, you know what I’m talking about.

I started to examine the facts of the situation and realised that my clients weren’t being ‘bad’, they were just being forgetful because let’s get real, giving something monthly almost never happens. And the current method of reminding them by applying a sticker to a calendar as recommended by the manufacturer, was pretty hard to do on my smartphone. I knew what I needed to do. The answer was right in front of me. I needed to be able to automatically send a reminder to my clients on their smartphone each month letting them know it was time to give their parasite prevention. I needed an app. I did what any normal person would do….I googled it.

To my surprise, there were no apps available for veterinarians to turn my idea into a reality. I stumbled upon a company in San Francisco building generic apps for small businesses like hairdressers and realtors. I reached out and asked them if they could help me. That’s when I learned that I would need to become an Apple Developer to host an app in the App Store.

Fast forward a few years later. By this time, my little app was solving lots of problems for me in my practice. I had added some new features to improve efficiency and loyalty. Clients could order medication by snapping a picture of the product, earn rewards for spending and share a pet selfie with us. I was sure there were veterinarians like me looking to connect with their clients more efficiently and effectively that would like to have an app too. I decided to start Vet2Pet in 2013. Looking back I was pretty naive. You have to understand that I knew a lot about running a veterinary practice and absolutely nothing about starting a company.

I started my business by turning on the website right before I went to bed one evening. I woke up in the morning and I had a customer. I could not believe it! I began working on apps when I would get home from my veterinary job (nights and weekends). The first year, it was a steady flow of about one customer per month. The second year, it doubled. The third year, I had to quit my veterinary job. Now, in 2018, 600 apps in nine countries later, I am the proud leader of an all-girl tech company dedicated to improving the lives of veterinary teams. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about core business principles that don’t seem to change much as you move into another vertical.

  1. Have your purpose. Every good employee I’ve ever had cares about making a difference, in addition to making money. If you can find something to believe in and communicate that vision and purpose to your team, they will be engaged on a whole new level.
  2. Listen. By listening, you will discover the secret to whatever you are working on, whether it be a happy customer, a sick dog, a motivated employee, or the direction for your business. The answer is almost always right in front of you if you can stop talking long enough to see it.
  3. Stay in your lane. It’s impossible to make everyone happy. It’s an assured outcome of disappointment if you start trying to make your product or service fit everyone. Find your lane then stay in it. And if you get lost temporarily and take the wrong road, stop the car, assess the situation and turn around to get back in your lane. You can’t afford to be distracted from your purpose.
  4. Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking happiness is yours just after you close the big deal, reach a money milestone, or worst of all, retire. The fun starts now. Be sure to take time to reflect on what you are doing and where you have been. Find the little things in the daily grind that inspire you and bring joy into your life.
  5. Surround yourself with good people. Team culture is the most important part of a company whether you are a leader or an employee. Hire SWANs (smart, work ethic, great attitude and nice) and be sure to resolve any “bad apple” situations quickly.

Dr. Stacee Santi (pictured) is a 1996 DVM graduate from Colorado State University and the founder of Vet2Pet, a technology startup that builds personalized custom apps for veterinary practices. With over 20 years of clinical experience in small animal and emergency practice, Stacee brings an “in the trenches” approach to innovation and solutions for veterinary teams. She has also served as a medical advisory consultant for NVA for 5 years, medical director for AAHA general/ER practice in Colorado as well as a member of the Executive Committee and Chairperson for the Telehealth Task Force for the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.

Researcher holding an epicam

epiCam V: Bringing Human Ophthalmic Imaging to Animals… and Back Again

Animal and human healthcare medicine are closely linked, in this blog we hear how the researchers at Epipole have learnt first-hand how overcoming technical challenges to re-purpose their specialised equipment for veterinary medicine, has led to improving their technology for Human medicine … so with each contributing to the other, where else can we adapt to improve both animal and human healthcare?

At Epipole we began our medical device journey back in 2011 with the aim of helping clinicians around the world to find blinding pathologies and thus to save sight. Save sight in humans, that is.

Working in this area over those years, we came to recognise that animals were quite poorly served in this respect.  Their eyes were in the care of a small number of highly qualified and dedicated referral vets whose expertise was immense and whose equipment was highly specialised. What we needed to do was build a device that could be used by all vets in practice and thus widen the diagnostic use of ophthalmology.

Having already built and proven the efficacy of two hand-held, low-cost, fundus cameras for human eyes we decided that we would take up the challenge of building a device for animals and see where that led us. Although epiCam M and epiCam C were designed to image the human eye at very high resolution – they can resolve detail as small as 10 microns – we knew that they were also “general purpose” enough that their core imaging technology could be re-purposed for veterinary applications.

The major challenge was that whilst humans have a fairly predictable physiology, the label “animal” applies to a massively varied population. Firstly, the simple geometry of the orbit of various eyes can vary in size by centimetres, from the guinea pig to the giraffe. And then there is the variation not only in pupil size but shape, from the bizarre multi-stage penguin pupil to the massive horse pupil – real levels of complexity. Moving on to the retina itself, there we also find an enormous range of shapes, sizes, structures, textures and what I can only describe as odd bits. Some bits are missing, in different places or at locations that seem to defy explanation. All of this has to be imaged and the device still has to turn out diagnostic levels of quality.

However, we always knew that we would end up with a much more complex device for animals than for humans. At its heart, a fundus camera is a microscope with on-axis illumination and a sensor in the place of the human eye. Much of our microscopy imaging technology was already complete and well tested, there was just the vexed question of illumination delivery and image formation to sort out.

As part of this, rather inconveniently, some animals have a tapetum lucidum that will massively over-expose a sensor even under low illumination. This, and the other issues, has meant that we had to give the device several more controls than we would need for humans – digital illumination control being just one of them.

Ironically, some of the technical challenges we had to overcome have meant that improvements and features have made their way back into the human imaging devices and for that we are immensely grateful. Neonate humans and small dogs turn out to be not that dissimilar after all.

Where next for digital veterinary ophthalmology? We are working hard to bring it to a wider audience, make it part of standard veterinary practice and provide an enhanced insight into pet health.

Dr Craig Robertson (pictured) is the founder of Epipole Ltd., an award-winning medical device company developing high quality, inexpensive video fundus cameras. Craig’s early background was as a researcher in mathematics and AI and since that he has spent more than 15 years in medical device engineering. He is the named inventor on many patents in retinal imaging and machine vision and has presented at over 50 conferences as well as being an invited speaker at TEDx Glasgow.

Claude Ecochard

Opportunities in the changing European Veterinary Sector

Will Artificial Intelligence be a source of opportunities for veterinary medicine?

Everyone knows the difference between a dog and a cat. We’ve all seen hundreds of cats and hundreds of dogs. In fact when you see a pet, it is very easy to tell if it is a cat or a dog. But when it comes to explaining how we structure our reasoning to arrive at this classification, it is more difficult.

For Machine Learning programs it is the same thing. They learn from data sets and then develop their own predictors (keys generated to predict categorisation) that can then be used to categorise new data.

Thus the classification assistance on diseases begins to appear in human medicine. We already have PhD courses in Computational Medicine as in Finland. It is reasonable to think that the contribution of metabolomics, with hundreds of biomarkers that can be analysed in a single drop of blood, will accelerate the knowledge of animals and the way to approach their health.

The veterinarian, employee or entrepreneur?

It is not new to say that we are seeing a feminisation of the veterinary profession. We are also seeing the emergence of increasingly large veterinary structures and even chains of tens or even hundreds of clinics, as in the United States. These models meet certain expectations of both customers and veterinarians.

Customers have access to a standardised care offer and improved availability. They can spread the payment with monthly health plans.

Veterinarians can concentrate on care without worrying about stock management, team management, accounting, with even the possibility of flexible working hours, allowing the work-life balance they want.

In parallel we see veterinarian entrepreneurs who create new business models. It can be in technology to facilitate the daily work of veterinarians (ie VetSpire, FuturePet, Pronozia) or connected objects to monitor animal behaviour (Felcana, Petinsight project).

Most often they complete their veterinary courses with training on entrepreneurship in business schools or with massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as those on effectuation (the art of entrepreneurship in the unknown). They can create startups or simply invent new approaches. I think especially of a Parisian veterinarian who specialises in treating ‘new pet animals’. She proposes providing roaming services in clinics that do not have this expertise. As an example, you have a cat and a parrot that both need veterinary care. You make an appointment at the usual clinic that already takes care of your cat and she will come to deliver the care to your parrot at the same time.

To be consistent with the first topic, this text has been written in French and translated almost instantly in English using which is a translation engine using Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning).

Claude Ecochard is a disruptive innovation senior leader at Royal Canin. His job is to support the company in terms of ‘Dream, Dare, Do’. A Master of Biochemistry and Food Engineering, he leverages his 30 years of R&D experience in the food industry to rethink the futures of the Petcare ecosystem. Passionately curious, he advocates the importance of empathy in the organisation, practices Design Thinking and effectuation principles to shape new opportunities.

He is fond of emerging Business Models in food, the cooperative economy and pet technology, looking at how to provide a positive impact on pet and pet owners’ lives. His buddy Frisko, a eight-year-old Border-line dog, is involved in most of his challenges.

Dr Chris Shivelton Queen

Virtual and Augmented Reality in Veterinary Education

Anyone who has watched films such as The Matrix or the more recent Spielberg offering, Ready Player One, will be familiar with the idea of virtual reality and the potential of it to transform not only entertainment but many other aspects of our lives, including work and education.

Spatial computing, which incorporates both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – collectively referred to as Mixed Realty (MR) – is rapidly moving from the realms of science fiction into fact, providing those in healthcare with a range of exciting and interesting new tools. Whilst there are a number of case examples of MR being employed within the human medical sector, it’s use remains in it’s infancy within the veterinary sector, although I see that changing over the next few years.

According to recent survey data the level of enthusiasm for spatial computing as a potentially useful tool within the veterinary profession is high even though the level of practical experience with such technology remains low. Whilst VR has been around for decades it is only in recent years that the technology has advanced to levels that now enable a range of extremely useful applications and is gaining wider adoption as opposed to simply being the preserve of gamers and academics. Much of this drive in adoption has come from the advances in mobile technology. One can easily experience the magic of VR using a phone-based headset like the Samsung GearVR or engage with AR through their Apple iPhone, whether it be chasing after Pokemon or playing with dinosaurs as they run across a tabletop. The barriers to entry of truly high-spec VR are rapidly falling and it will soon be possible to experience full six-degrees-of-freedom VR, allowing users to directly engage and interact with a virtual world, without having to break the bank by buying expensive gaming equipment. Truly untethered, mobile headsets, such as those in development by companies like Oculus, will, I am certain, herald a wave of mass adoption of VR. As soon as more people get to try spatial computing for themselves the applications will start to be imagined and created, including many that will change how we, as veterinarians, train, educate ourselves and clients, and manage our professional lives.

I recently spoke at an industry conference in the US on VR in Veterinary, with education and training the most obvious areas for application at present. Human surgeons are already able to practice certain skills in VR, using programs like OssoVR, and the evidence supports the view that immersive systems that provide practical training scenarios do translate into effective learning. The airline industry has used VR systems to train pilots for years. Why not use the same principles to ensure that our surgeons, both of humans and animals, learn, practice and refine key skills in a safe, repercussion-free environment before they apply those same skills to real-life patients. If I had been able to graduate from vet school having carried out hundreds of (virtual) bitch spays – a feat that would simply not have been possible in the real world – even if the virtual scenarios only modelled very specific aspects of the experience, then I think my confidence as a new graduate and my progression as a clinical practitioner would have been significantly greater. Practical CPD in the future is highly unlikely to involve groups of people huddling round a single-use physical model or hard-to-source cadaver but rather take place in the infinite bounds of the digital environment, where specific training scenarios are but a virtual menu selection away and there is no limit to the ‘practice models’ available.

We are, I believe at the very start of this spatial computing journey in the veterinary profession, with many questions yet to be both asked and answered. I, as with many others, look forward to the day when donning a pair of smart glasses or a VR headset will be seen as a normal part of our professional experience.

For more information on the VR & AR in Veterinary survey and a full report, including a link to Dr Chris’ recent presentation in the USA follow the link below or head to his website at

How do you envisage us learning in the future? Can you imagine using Virtual or Augmented Reality to learn new skills or improve existing ones?


Dr Chris Shivelton Queen is a small animal veterinary surgeon and all-things-tech enthusiast, writing and presenting under the moniker The Nerdy Vet. His tech achievements to date include being a co-developer on the award winning pet healthcare apps, Mucky Pup and Purrfect Paws, the first vet-developed healthcare apps on the market, and he is author of the highly acclaimed guide for those looking to apply to veterinary at university, ‘Vet School,’ which is available through his website Dr Chris has long been a proponent of both VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) and has presented at a number of industry conferences on their use in the veterinary sector, most notably Augmented World Expo, held annually in San Francisco, USA. When he is not practicing as a vet or getting excited by tech he can usually be found either skydiving or training for his next ultra-marathon.

Zoe Skinner

What’s your big idea?

As a Vet Futures student ambassador, I was fortunate to attend the first RCVS innovation symposium with other student ambassadors from across the country. The day was incredibly interesting and opened my eyes to innovations such as new business models, artificial intelligence and big data as well as how these developments will affect the veterinary profession. I also learned the importance of embracing innovation to ensure the role of a veterinary surgeon remains relevant and the need for veterinary professionals to be at the forefront of new developments to ensure there is a focus on improving the health and welfare of animals.

I must admit, before attending the symposium, I had never considered the extent to which innovation and new technology will reform my future career. This is something I am sure I am not alone in, as I believe it is easy for veterinary students to focus solely on the approaches currently taught in our curriculum without considering how these might change in the future. The day inspired me to encourage other students to become involved in innovation so I was keen to join the innovation project group when the opportunity arose at the Vet Futures training day.

After lots of brainstorming, the innovation project team have come up with a plan to introduce a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style competition to UK and Ireland veterinary universities in order to help realise the potential in the next generation of innovators. Student teams will be challenged with identifying an issue facing our industry and designing a new solution; then pitching their idea to a board of industry professionals. We plan to launch the competition in September 2018 with prize giving taking place at the RCVS innovation symposium in 2019. Teams will be encouraged to diversify their skill set and include students from outside the veterinary sphere with plans in place to reach out to business and technology schools at corresponding universities to determine if they would like to be involved.

We hope the competition will fuel an interest amongst our fellow students to embrace innovation and new technology and encourage them to learn about the changes it will bring to our profession. After all, using new technology in our daily lives has become second nature to our generation, so why can’t we embrace this in our chosen profession? I believe encouraging students to grasp the potential that innovation holds from the beginning of their veterinary education will produce graduates who are confident to be at the forefront of creating and embracing innovation, ensuring it is used in a way that that focuses on improving veterinary care.

Zoe Skinner (pictured), is a Vet Futures Student Ambassador from Nottingham University and has an interest in farm animal medicine, One Health and how new developments will shape the future of the veterinary profession. She describes the VF Student Ambassadors’ Innovation Team’s new initiative, designed to give more vet students the opportunity to get involved with veterinary innovation.