Sunday 19 January 2020

Pioneering inventor of horse-blood test is a rare breed of entrepreneur

Sligo man's mix of sound science and salesmanship makes for galloping success, writes John Cradden

Stablelab founder and CEO Dr Heinrich Anhold went from inventing the new test to selling it worldwide.
Stablelab founder and CEO Dr Heinrich Anhold went from inventing the new test to selling it worldwide.

John Cradden

Many entrepreneurs get by on simple drive and ambition, while a lucky few may also be blessed with a range of marketable skills that allows them to tackle effectively the wide variety of challenges that will invariably come their way.

However, the person who can combine a highly scientific mind with a well-tuned business brain must be a rare breed indeed.

Dr Heinrich Anhold is the founder and CEO of Stablelab, which manufactures and sells a hand-held blood test for horses that accurately detects infections.

Born and raised in Sligo, where his parents kept many horses, it's perhaps no surprise that he opted to start a business connected with the equine industry that he knows so well. But Stablelab is also a very successful export-focused firm that has been growing between 50pc and 70pc year-on-year since its launch in 2013.

Furthermore, with a PhD in biochemistry from NUI Galway, he is also responsible for the crucial scientific discovery that makes the company's blood test product so effective.

The story of Stablelab, however, starts a couple of years before this discovery. While he was doing his PhD, Anhold decided to have a go at commercialising a product for the equine industry in the burgeoning field of point-of-care diagnostics. Inspired by a talk in NUI Galway, he decided that he had "nothing to lose and everything to gain", and planned to spend two years on the project.

He says he wasn't motivated by money, but by the opportunity to combine science and entrepreneurship. "It's an industry that I know well and I could combine both my backgrounds in science and in horses to give myself a start on an entrepreneurial journey," he says.

His first break was managing to convince Philips electronics to partner with him to create a hand-held blood test based on counting white blood cells. He was still finishing his PhD and working from his bedroom at home.

"But two years into that project I decided to drop it and walk away from it because it wasn't doing what I wanted it to achieve as an entrepreneur," he explains.

While he had given the project the two years he had committed to, Anhold had learnt enough to figure he could keep going.

"I had a lot of learning from that first initial attempt, and I was able to pause and reset, and that's something most Irish entrepreneurs don't get an opportunity to do.

"I had learnt what not to do, learnt where the opportunities were and I started again with a very open, fresh, innovative and creative approach, to add to the knowledge and experience that I gained in the first two years."

He reckons that most entrepreneurs' initial product or idea is always going to be flawed. "Often it's just a question of if you can work through it or not."

However, it was during this "pause and reset" period that he made the scientific breakthrough that allowed him to devise a blood test that detects infections in horses with a sensitivity some 50 times greater than a thermometer.

"I discovered a protein in horses blood called SAA [Serum Amyloid A], which was already known but it wasn't really known what exactly it did. I had shown that it was involved in infections, and can be very accurately utilised to detect infections," says Heinrich.

While he had hit on a new and disruptive product, he had little to show in terms of funding to promote it, a classic conundrum that many entrepreneurs will have experienced.

In the end, he simply became a one-man travelling sales operation for the 18 months.

"I put on my backpack, filled it with product and I literally travelled the globe. I was rapidly testing different markets, as I was on a small budget and I had to find somewhere to sell the product and successfully scale that before we ran out of cash," he recalls.

Starting in Scandinavia, he worked his way through Europe and the UK, going from one veterinary practice to another, and then flew to the US to do the same there, followed by a stint in Australia. When he returned home, he decided to focus exclusively on the US, a move that has clearly stood to him.

"In our fourth year, which was last year, we sold over $3m of the product in the US. That only equates to approximately 20pc of the US market. So we still have a long way to go out there," he says.

With the US operation now well-established, his focus has turned to other markets, such as the UK, with supplier relationships already secured in 14 other countries.

It's no surprise to hear that his longer-term plan is to adapt the product to work for other animals. "For us, the equine market was just an entry point or a platform to enter the larger global veterinary diagnostics market."

As you would expect, the company has a number of patents on its product but Anhold admits that until the company gets bigger or partners with a bigger firm, it might not be able to afford to defend them but he is clearly not worried about that. Already, he says, a couple of companies have tried to copy what Stablelab is making but "they haven't done a good job, we're well ahead of the competition".

Instead, his strategy has been to focus on product quality. "User experience and user interaction with our product were two of the key drivers in our product development and design, and being a market-led company is something that we are particularly proud of."

"We designed and developed the product so that it worked for vets, that it solves problems that they come across on a daily basis. Our repeat rate is extremely high. Once customers buy our product, they keep buying it."

Anhold has a lot to say about how startups work and the role they play in creating new markets. "The difference between a startup and any other business, is that startups don't have business models, they have to create them," he says.

"By definition, a startup is doing something that is new and innovative that hasn't been done before. It's not good enough to only have a product or a service, you have to build a business model around that."

The company, which employs 20 people, is on a recruitment drive, although Anhold admits that for all the benefits of being headquartered in Sligo, finding people with the right skills is become increasingly challenging.

However, scalability is something that investors like, and the strong numbers he has achieved has allowed him to attract more private investment in the last 12-18 months.

With the company now galloping ahead, it's no surprise to hear that Anhold plans to stick around and see it achieve its full potential - and thereby achieve his ambitions as an entrepreneur.

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