Until Animals Can Talk, FaunaLabs’ Wearables Are Next Best Thing

Durham-based FaunaLabs is an animal health services provider dedicated to tracking animal health data with non-invasive wearable devices. (Photos provided by FaunaLabs.)

Have you ever felt like your pet was trying to communicate with you? Have you ever experienced worry when they randomly start to whimper and whine? Have you ever wished that you could understand them? 

FaunaLabs might have the solution for you.

Unlike with the famous “talking” dog in the Pixar movie Up, FaunaLabs can’t help you have an actual conversation with your pets. But their devices like the FaunaCollar can help toward that step of understanding what your pets—and other animals—need.

FaunaLabs is a Durham-based animal health services provider that produces advanced health monitoring devices for animals, from your pet at home to whales off the North Carolina coast. The B2B company produces devices such as the FaunaCollar to provide real-time analytics of animal health through non-invasive diagnostics. Think: wearables for animals.

One of FaunaLabs’ product, the FaunaTag, attached to a dolphin.

CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Dave Haas conceptualized the idea for FaunaLabs while working on his marine science and conservation PhD research at Duke University.

He discovered this need to understand marine animal physiology while studying beaked whales at Duke Marine Lab. Haas was impressed by how these animals will come up to the surface of the water for a few breaths before embarking on long and deep dives, the record (according to human-kept tracking anyway) being three hours and 42 minutes to depths of over 12,000 feet.

“Understanding how [these animals] manage their physiology while they go on these dives was one of the questions that were really eating at me,” Haas said. “It’s something that we’re blind to. We have no tools to measure that.” 

So, in 2018, Haas developed a product that he jokingly described as a “FitBit for whales” called the FaunaTag. This suction cup-attached device would be able to stick to the skin of a whale and measure metrics such as heart and respiratory rates using bio-optics. 

Haas said that his background in tech and software made him start to wonder about the overlap of human biomedicine and animal health. With an initial interest in being a physicist, Haas’s additional background in physics and learning about optics, wavelengths and frequencies gave him a unique perspective on the problem that wasn’t just rooted in biology or engineering. 

FaunaCollar on a dairy cow.

Haas found that there was a fundamental problem with the types of red and green lights that previous, similar technologies were trying to use. A sensor using these lights would not be able to penetrate the skin of a whale or the fur of a dog. Haas ended up utilizing new wavelengths of lights similar to infrared light and found that it broke open that barrier. 

“We’ve unlocked the sensor and hardware part of it, but the important thing is that the sensor gives us access to data that nobody can collect right now,” Haas said.

“The actual value of [this product] is that suddenly we’re going to be free to collect as much data on every dog, cow, horse—everything—and start to understand what normal looks like.”

One day in early 2019 while over coffee, Haas and FaunaLabs Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer (CPO) Sam Kelly realized that if this device worked well on marine mammals, this technology could potentially work well on other animals like dairy cows, horses and even dogs. After completing his Ph.D. in 2022, Haas adapted the FaunaTag with Kelly and shrunk it down to the FaunaCollar—which is about the size of an AirPods case—that could strap onto animals like a regular collar. 

Kelly brought the collar back to his home in New Zealand where his father is a veterinarian at different clinics that work with animals ranging from dairy cows to the average household pet. After some pre-clinical testing at these clinics, they found the tag to be successful. These tags are able to penetrate the fur of animals and can track real-time data about their health and provide insights for carers about their animals’ past, current and future welfare. 

CEO and Co-Founder Dave Haas (left) and CPO and Co-Founder Sam Kelly (right)

FaunaLabs is now in the process of finding ways to advance those pre-clinical studies by looking to communicate and partner with companies in animal health and nutrition, dairy production and more in order to bring their products further into the animal health field. They were recently selected in early 2023 for the Plug and Play Topeka Animal Health Accelerator program, which aims to facilitate business development and mentorship opportunities for startups focused on animal health. 

FaunaLabs’ vision is to provide animal health data to pet owners, veterinarians, dairy producers and herd managers by eventually offering a hybrid SaaS model through partnerships with existing smart collar and virtual fencing collar companies. They plan to offer an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) hardware solution to integrate their FaunaLab sensors with these companies’ devices and provide relevant and predictive health analytics.

“One of the things that’s interesting to us is the veterinary space has started to evolve and you’re starting to see a lot more telemedicine for pets,” Haas said. “Our mission is really to share this understanding of the health of these animals and try to improve outcomes and their welfare.” 

While FaunaLabs does not currently envision any B2C efforts, they hope that these devices will help toward unlocking and understanding animal health, giving veterinary clinics, dairy farms and other animal health organizations the opportunity to improve animal welfare further.

About Kaitlyn Dang 12 Articles
Kaitlyn is a reporter covering tech startups and entrepreneurs. Before starting at GrepBeat, she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in media and journalism in May 2023. She has written for The Daily Tar Heel. In her spare time, she likes going to concerts and going on nature walks.