Shift by Alberta Innovates

Digital health isn't only for humans - Sylvester AI helps diagnose an ailing animal

July 27, 2022 Susan Groeneveld, founder of and Co-founder of Cat Healthy Season 3 Episode 12
Shift by Alberta Innovates
Digital health isn't only for humans - Sylvester AI helps diagnose an ailing animal
Show Notes Transcript

Cats are 10, 000 years less domesticated than dogs, so they don't always tell us the truth with their body language and sweet little purrs.

Enter Sylvester ai, a Calgary-based company that unveiled Tably, a digital health platform designed to assess a cat's visual cues based on pictures you take of your cat.

Tably's AI compares those photos with  a database of veterinarian photos it's been trained to analyze and compare to then make an assessment of whether your cat is having a good day or a bad day. An understanding of bad days over time can then help cat owners to more proactively seek help from vet before something minor becomes major.

Sylvester ai and Tably have been featured in a number of publications and are taking the pet world by storm. Listen to our interview with Susan and learn more about this fascinating technology she imagines will have application's beyond cats in the years to come.


Susan Groeneveld
Susan is an entrepreneur, co-founder of WS Marketing with Soul, Cat Healthy and She's a problem solver with over 20 yrs experience shaping growth marketing approaches for mid-large size companies. Customer centric approach in the food economy from growers to consumers; as well as pet care. Predicting audience behavior based on aggregated data and experience is her super power.

Shift by Alberta Innovates focuses on the people, businesses and organizations that are contributing to Alberta's strong tech ecosystem.

Hey folks, welcome to Shift. This next interview comes off the floor from Inventures 2022. As you know, we had a blast. We got to meet so many entrepreneurs, researchers, students, investors, the movers and shakers in the entrepreneurial world. Our next guest, Susan Groeneveld, is one of those entrepreneurs. She's taking artificial intelligence and she's designed an app that will help assess your cat's health. I thought I saw a pussy cat. Meow.

Jon:                      So this is cats and artificial intelligence?

Susan:                 Correct.

Jon:                     Katie mentioned this to me and I'm like, "Yes, can we talk to Susan right now?" So how does this work?

Susan:                 Cats are the ultimate AI. The first use case for AI was determining if you could tell the difference between a cat and a dog.

Jon:                     No. Are you serious?

Susan:                 That was the very first use case for artificial intelligence, was seeing if we could train the technology to determine, on the internet, what a cat looked like versus what a dog looked like.

Jon:                     I had no idea.

Susan:                 Yep. That's the very first use case.

Jon:                     Okay. This is a much better extension of that, but identifying what a cat looks like was definitely part of our patent actually.

Susan:                 Okay.

Jon:                     So

Katie:                  Tell us about Sylvester AI. What is it? What are you guys doing? What's it about?

Susan:                 Yeah. Sylvester AI is actually, what we've done is we've created technology that you can take a picture of a cat's face, and from that we can predict whether the cat has pain or not. And it's based using a validated pain scale from veterinarians that they would use in a clinic when they look at a cat. And we've just taken technology and AI to predict it. And it's greater than 90% precision to the pain scale.

Jon:                     Wow. Okay, so the AI then can tell whether or not the cat is experiencing pain?

Susan:                 Yes.

Jon:                     How detailed do you go? Do you get granular on what type of pain, where the pain is located?

Susan:                 No, not yet.

Jon:                     Okay.

Susan:                 We're early stages. We just started last year, in 2021. And we got picked up early, actually. We released our beta, which was family and friends. And we knew our accuracy was really high to discomfort versus no pain. That was our very first data set. And Wired picked us up, and then Reuters news picked us up about two months later and we had 54,000 downloads in one week from cat owners around the world.

Katie:                  Well, and cat owners, that makes sense to me.

Jon:                     Can this AI be applied across the spectrum? Could it be like human AI, dog AI? Because really, you're probably going to really anger the dog people if they don't have an equivalent. Or do they?

Susan:                 No. They don't, actually. This is the first of its kind using facial recognition. The thing with dogs is the grimace scale for dogs is harder to assess because dog faces are very different, like a pug versus a German shepherd, for example. But cats, unless you're grumpy cat or a Persian, they're all pretty much the same. So we can really pinpoint between the ears and the whiskers and the eyes. And that's how we can assess. When they're in pain, their ears will get flatter back on their face. Their muzzle will clench, tense up.

Jon:                     Okay. Yeah.

Susan:                 Horses have a very high grimace scale, so this could be technology for equine. Rabbits, ferrets, and actually mice, like lab mice, is also another really good use case. But it's because the grimace scale is so accurate that we can apply this to-

Jon:                     Grimace scale. As soon as said grimace I thought of McDonald's with the big purple-

Susan:                 I know. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jon:                     Grimace plug.

Susan:                 Different grimace.

Jon:                     Different grimace. Okay. That's fascinating. So there's certain animals that have very easy to recognize grimace?

Susan:                 For a professional. For a veterinarian. What's really interesting about cats is, when they're sick they hide because they're 10,000 years less domesticated than dogs. So a sick cat will go and pee on your pillow or do something outside of the litter box because they do not want anyone to know that they're in pain, because if they were in the wild they'd become somebody's food. So this is why it's so hard for us to understand what they're doing. We've actually had people use the technology and tell us that it saved their cat's life because their cat was purring and they thought it was fine. And then when they used our tech, it was showing that the cat was having a bad day. They took the cat to the vet and it was actually severely dehydrated, but it was trying to get their attention. Yeah, we can try.

Jon:                     Scan it.

Susan:                 We can try.

Jon:                     So for those people listening, I've got a picture of my cat, Bobo.

Susan:                 Bobo, what everyone needs to know about Bobo is he's got a blonde face, so that might be a challenge for us from a lighting point of view.

Jon:                     Of course. Yeah.

Susan:                 But let's just see.

Jon:                     And your tech probably works better if you're actually looking at the cat and not a picture of a cat.

Susan:                 You know what? It's okay to look at a picture. We'll actually access... Plan is to access camera roll, and then we'll be able to.

Jon:                     Okay.

Susan:                 Your cat is having a good day.

Katie:                  Bobo's having a great day, Jon.

Jon:                     Oh, Bobo. Okay, how about Scooby?

Susan:                 Okay. Let's try Scooby.

Jon:                     Now we've got a picture of Scooby who, again, is another black cat.

Susan:                 Oh, he is too. We'll see.

Katie:                  He looks grumpy.

Jon:                     Yeah. How does your AI work with grumpy cats?

Susan:                 He's just a very stoic cat, isn't he? We'll see.

Jon:                     Fair enough. Takes after his father.

Susan:                 The black cat issue is really about the lighting. We'll see if... Oh, he's having a bad day.

Jon:                     Oh.

Susan:                 We have a bit of a symptom checker for bad day. We don't know if it's a discomfort because maybe he doesn't like getting his picture taken. We all have bad days. So what we would say for a bad day assessment is keep taking pictures. We're building in a trend analysis. So it's more about bad days over time because one picture, maybe you just woke him up or maybe he's just a little cranky because you haven't fed them. We've seen cats have bad days because they're hungry.

Jon:                     Ah, okay.

Susan:                 And so this is a tracker over time. Any cat over eight is probably going to present with pain of some kind. They probably are going to have arthritis or something. And that's a really good use for this technology, is as they age. So it's just a little gut check. Cat owners love their cats and they want to do what's right for them, but we often misunderstand what we're trying to tell us.

Jon:                     Right. And you hit on a great point earlier when you talked about purring, because most of us think when a cat is purring, that's good.

Susan:                 Yes.

Katie:                  Totally. Let's go back to your story. So you got 54,000 downloads in a day, was it?

Susan:                 In a week?

Katie:                  In a week?

Susan:                 Yes.

Katie:                  In a week. Then what happened?

Susan:                 Well, then we knew that we were onto something really epically massive. And what's really, really, really cool about this technology is that it's the cat people that are driving it.

Katie:                  Of course they are. I'm not surprised.

Susan:                 Right? And what I love about this is the market is telling us they want it. And that's actually what's driving... Obviously we have interest from pharma companies that have drugs, or clinics that want to help cats. But it's really cat parents that are telling us that they want this technology. So now we have a SaaS model, and we're just validating that model. It's a pay-per-month. And our conversion rate's about 14%, which really demonstrates how interested the cat parent is. And it's global. We have downloads around the world.

Katie:                  Well, and I can anticipate there are so many more use cases for this. So it's not just beyond cat parents. Farmers could maybe potentially use this with cattle.

Susan:                 Yes.

Katie:                  With anything. You mentioned equine, horses and things like that.

Susan:                 Swine. Swine's also a really good one.

Katie:                  Yeah.

Susan:                 So yes.

Katie:                  So the opportunity to transform this industry and how we care for our animals, there's a lot of potential here with your app.

Susan:                 Yeah. You know what's really exciting for me is that during COVID we really started to understand the bond between animals and humans, and for our own mental health. And now we're seeing that we don't have enough veterinarians to help all the animals that people are now caring for. And so there's this massive movement to the digital experience. And so we see telehealth exploding. What our technology does is it really helps a cat parent in this situation to be motivated to do something. Or even in a telehealth consult, they can use the app to have a conversation with the vet. We're also seeing it in post-treatment, like your cat goes in for a dental procedure. You've been told everything by the veterinarian, what you need to do. Is your cat really doing okay? Take a picture. And we actually have a pro version that can go back to the clinic and they can see at the same time how the cat is doing.

Katie:                  Digital health for animals.

Susan:                 That's it.

Jon:                     It's cool. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Katie:                  This is really, really cool.

Susan:                 The other use case is... And I'm excited for this. And I don't know how far away. Probably not very far. Is can we start to predict what a diabetic cat might look like? Can we start to predict what a urinary tract infection cat starts to look like based on how they're presenting in pain?

Jon:                     Right. Right.

Katie:                  And this could help pet parents reduce cost of vet bills, right?

Susan:                 Yes. Yes. Yes. And this is something you can do at home. So even now in the pandemic or post-pandemic. And you know how all the vet care is you've got to drive up and you have this weird conversation with the vet in your car while they take your pet away? We could actually also be helping people know that their animal's okay, their cat's okay and that it doesn't need an immediate look. Or to help manage that stress or anxiety that you might be feeling thinking about, your cat needs to go in but you're not sure.

Katie:                  Yeah.

Jon:                     Now Susan, where did all this come from? Is your background in AI? Were you're just-

Susan:                 Yeah, my background's actually... I have a science background. Science education, but I work with a lot of companies in marketing in the multinational pet care space. So for 20 years I've been sitting with C-suite and marketing people, and we've been trying to help promote different types of drugs for animals. And I have to say, in the cat world, it's such an underserved market because less than half of them actually see a veterinarian on a regular basis.

                            And part of that is we think that they're a cheaper pet to own. You usually get a kitten for free. We think they're not as much money so we think that they don't need as much care, but that's just because they hide their symptoms. And so this really came out of trying to do better for that species and trying to elevate them so that they're on the same level of care as dogs. Over 85% of dogs go to a vet. They present like kids. We treat them like our family. Cats deserve the same. And they're deeply loved. They're just not seeing that level of care. So that's really where this started.

Jon:                     It's a great point. Just as you were talking about that, I think when my wife and I want to go out on the weekend, it's like, "Well, I'll just put an extra water and food for the cats. They'll be good for three days."

Susan:                 You can't do that. No. Yeah.

Jon:                     Yeah. But from what you're saying, I'm taking maybe you don't do that for cats either?

Susan:                 No, you can do that for cats. Behavior's different. They actually don't mind solitary. They're the perfect pet, if you think about it, because they don't require the same level of care that way. They want to be individual. But when it comes to health, they do have health issues that we don't pay attention to. If you even think about the value of the cat food that you might give your cat versus the value of the dog food, there's a very... Maybe this is a bad analogy, but I kind of liken it to women. Women and men in a men's world. They're just so underserved because we just really haven't thought about them the same way. And they're the fastest growing market in companion care. There's more cat ownership, especially in Asian markets, than dogs.

Jon:                     Oh, okay.

Katie:                  Taking it from... I understand the value that could be derived from this from a pet parent's perspective, but what about monetizing this technology with vets?

Susan:                 Yes, absolutely.

Katie:                  Is that a market that you're exploring?

Susan:                 Yes, very much. B2B, they're very interested in this technology. So we're talking to telehealth today. We've actually done some pilots in clinic. What clinicians love about this is the connection to the cat parent. A sad decision, these animals are our lives, our whole lives and their whole lives. And at some point they're not going to live as long as we do. And so when is the right time to say goodbye, or when is the right time to bring in medication?

                            What clinicians love about this is they can let the app help people understand that their cats are having bad days and maybe it's time to let go. So hospice is very interested in using our technology. They're already recommending that if you have an elderly cat because it just gives you the understanding that maybe you don't want to say goodbye, but it's maybe time because the quality of life is so poor.

Jon:                     Yeah.

Susan:                 So very much an enterprise approach we're looking at with veterinarian clinics.

Katie:                  And it seems like the sky's the limit with this technology. We're starting with the grimace scale, but what else can we do with this?

Susan:                 That's right. And you tell me. I think diagnostic therapy, now that we've unlocked the potential of AI in animal health, there's many people that are looking at this and investigating it. But we hold the patent on the AI to grimace scale to the cat parent. And truly what I love is it's going to be the cat parents that drive this.

Katie:                  Yes.

Susan:                 And there's very good meaning people in pharma and health, and they want to do the right thing, but this is a groundswell. This is people that want to do better for their-

Katie:                  Cat parents have like a different culture.

Susan:                 100%. And they're on the internet, right?

Katie:                  Yeah. It's a different culture than any other animal, I think.

Susan:                 Yeah. So fun fact... And some of the questions we get is like, "Well, is it a wearable?" A wearable on a cat's not super cool. It's not super great. But people will ask, "Well, how do you do that? Do you have a camera in the house?" And I'm like, "Okay, do you have a cat?" "Yeah." "Do you have a picture of your cat?" "Yeah." I have not met one cat parent that doesn't have pictures of their cats, or their whole Instagram feed. Yeah.

Katie:                  And I can't remember the last time I took a photo of my dog. I love my dog but I can't remember. No.

Susan:                 That's funny. We don't go to the dog park, right? We don't socialize. We socialize online as cat owners.

Jon:                     You're right. Yeah. That's interesting.

Katie:                  Yeah. That's a good point.

Susan:                 So yeah, it's very interesting. And today we don't have access to camera role, but we'll build that into the tech so people don't even have to really... You might want to if you've got an older cat. But as long as we can access camera role, we can help people with peace of mind.

Jon:                     Where's the company based out of?

Susan:                 Calgary.

Jon:                     It's a Calgary company. Okay.

Susan:                 Yeah.

Jon:                     Now, you said you're meeting with telehealth. Are you meeting with... And it's not on my business, but are you meeting with them here?

Susan:                 No. No, we're not. No. No.

Jon:                     Okay. And just to totally switch speeds on you, when you think about a conference like this happening in Calgary, what does this mean to you as an entrepreneur? Someone that's a researcher, someone that's pushing something forward and hoping at commercializing.

Susan:                 I often get asked, why Calgary? When people find out I'm from Calgary or this company's from Calgary. And honestly it's because I live here.

Jon:                     Sure. Yeah.

Susan:                 But what Calgary has is a real can-do spirit. A real entrepreneurial approach. And we've done really well because of the oil and gas and the energy. And I understand that, but what's happening now that's so exciting is this push into tech. And it's happening right in front of our eyes. And you guys are a part of this. I'm truly excited for the future of Calgary. And Kevin Costner being our parade marshal. We've done such a tremendously good job at bringing the world to Calgary, and all the entertainment that's getting filmed here and whatnot. What we have in our backyard is unparalleled.

                            And so what a great place to be able to free-think and think about tech and think about new ideas and think about innovation? Because we're humbled every day by where we live. And so I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled that this is happening, and it's happening quicker than I thought. Have you guys ever heard that analogy where you're the one crazy person dancing on the side of the hill?

Jon:                     Yes.

Katie:                  That's frequently Jon, yes.

Jon:                     The YouTube video?

Susan:                 Right?

Jon:                     Yeah.

Susan:                 And then there's like a few-

Jon:                     The second person follows out. Yeah, the leader. And the early adopters.

Susan:                 Right, and then there's a whole bunch doing it. This is happening so fast now for Calgary, and it still isn't happening fast enough. So I'm thrilled that it's here. I'm really thrilled.

Jon:                     Yeah. Yeah. Well, your enthusiasm and your product are cool. It's really neat. And I know that when my sister and her roommate and my wife hear this podcast, you're going to have three more downloads right away.

Susan:                 Yeah. That's great. Yeah, it's fun. Our job is to keep going and to add more value. I would call our product today a minimum lovable product. It's good enough people want to pay for it, but there's just so many legs to this.

Jon:                     Yeah. Yeah.

Katie:                  But the possibilities are endless, as we just spoke about. So I'm really excited to see where you guys go in the next few years, because it's brand new. You've only been doing this for, what would you say?

Susan:                 One year.

Katie:                  One year.

Jon:                     One year.

Katie:                  So you've done all this in one year. I can't imagine where you're going to be in one more year.

Jon:                     That speaks to the speed of technology that you're talking about.

Susan:                 Yeah. Here's the thing: When you get something... And I think it's my marketing background, to be honest, because we created something that had a problem to solve for the end customer. This is how you can accelerate it. So many ideas start with not the end user in mind. This is very much an end user approach.

Jon:                     That's a real key message, I think, when you think about entrepreneurialism, broadly speaking. Identify your customer and what problem you're solving for them.

Susan:                 Yeah. And a huge problem, right?

Jon:                     Yeah. Yeah.

Susan:                 I think that's what's driving the acceleration rate. And actually we have to go back and do more validation on the science and all of that, but yeah-

Jon:                     Well, you probably never get to the point where you're just like, "Okay, done."

Susan:                 Nope.

Jon:                     Yeah. It's that constant improvements and... Yeah.

Susan:                 And the other thing with AI is, if you really sit back and you think about any problem in the world and then think about the potential with AI, it's mind-blowing.

Jon:                     You're right.

Susan:                 It's almost exhausting.

Jon:                     Who are some of your partners with the artificial intelligence?

Susan:                 AltaML is our partner.

Katie:                  AltaML.

Susan:                 Yeah. So Cory Janssen and I.

Katie:                  They're one of our clients. We've supported them for years.

Susan:                 Yeah. So yeah, that's where this all started. And another part of that too is in Alberta, having that story of U of A. And having that deep wealth, and then having it non-institutional. So knowing that I can tap into AI that's commercial. They understand the speed at AltaML. I think that's actually going to be part of our moat, is how fast we can move. It's a made in Alberta story-

Katie:                  Well, and we know that artificial intelligence is just booming in Alberta. So yeah, it's only going to get better from here.

Susan:                 Yeah. Yeah, it's cool.

Jon:                     Now, when you think of this conference, are you enjoying yourself? Are you having...

Susan:                 Yes, it's good. I have to say, I was here in 2019 before we started this idea. And I came away... I was telling someone today. I came away... As an entrepreneur you have lots of ideas. And you're like, "Mm, well I could do that." And people kind of diss you because it's just an idea. And actually, looking back, it was part of the fuel to get going because I felt like, "Oh, there's some stuff. If this company over here could be doing it, why can't I?" And I think it really did accelerate my mindset. And then when COVID hit we were already down a path and it just felt right to keep going. So I actually think it was fuel. A little bit of rocket fuel to come to this.

Jon:                     Well, that's exciting. That's so great to hear, so that Inventures, when you first came in 2019, had provided some fuel and some excitement to you.

Susan:                 Yeah. If you would've asked me then I would've said, "Oh, I didn't get anything out of that."

Jon:                     "I got a lunch."

Susan:                 But looking back, I'm like, "Oh, I don't know."

Jon:                     Well, that's cool.

Susan:                 Yeah.

Katie:                  Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.

Susan:                 Thank you.

Jon:                     Yeah. Real pleasure chatting with you.

Susan:                 Yeah. You bet.

Jon:                     Well, thanks for joining us today. You can find Shift online at or contact us at On behalf of the gang here, I'm Jon. Talk to you soon.