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Transforming Veterinary Care During a Pandemic

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Ellen Herzfelder, SM ’87

A year after the first lockdowns sent people home from work and school, a new study indicates 93 percent of those who adopted a “pandemic pet” saw their mental and/or physical wellbeing improve. The demand for pet adoptions in Boston and across the country remains high, and the American pet industry recently crossed $100 billion in sales. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and new pet owners are struggling to find easily accessible veterinary care.

“Animals have provided a boon to people and vice versa,” says Ellen Herzfelder, SM ’87, whose family’s dog and cat have comforted them during the pandemic. “But there’s been a slowdown in the veterinary clinic business. They have to take so many precautions, which has prevented them from servicing a lot of new pets, so people are looking for alternatives.”

Inspired by the struggles of their fellow pet owners, Ellen and her husband Bruce Herzfelder co-founded BetterVet, a healthcare tech startup that leverages telemedicine and at-home doctor visits to provide pets and their owners with safe and convenient access to veterinary care.

“We appreciate the fact that we can stay at home with our pets while the veterinarian comes to us,” Ellen explains. “We think this care is much better, especially for older pets that have trouble getting in and out of cars and shelter animals that are very sensitive to their surroundings.”

As the company took shape in the spring of 2020, the Herzfelders searched the Boston area for talent. They ultimately arrived at the MIT Sloan Career Development Office, which had been collaborating with the Office of External Relations to connect students and alumni to discuss internship and job opportunities—and put them in touch with Carolina Goncebat, MBA ’20.

"I’ve always wanted to work in an early-stage startup, but it’s difficult to find people with relevant experience who can offer access to similar opportunities,” says Goncebat, who not only helped to co-found BetterVet and build its app but now serves as its chief operating officer. “I can apply everything I learned to working with Ellen at BetterVet, which has been wonderful. This opportunity definitely came about because of our shared connection to MIT Sloan.”

Her time at MIT Sloan also included the Action Learning labs, which provide students with the chance to apply their academic knowledge to real-world management projects at startups, multinational corporations, and non-profit organizations. Goncebat participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab), through which she worked with an Indonesian startup.

“I learned a lot during my G-Lab experience,” says Goncebat. “Action Learning was one of the reasons I chose to attend MIT Sloan, as it’s one of the few MBA programs that offer so many lab options where you’re actually working inside a startup. I would recommend it to everyone.”

Carolina Goncebat, MBA ’20

This spring, BetterVet is participating in the Entrepreneurship Lab (E-Lab) course taught by Trish Cotter (Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship; Executive Director, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship) and Dip Patel, MBA ’14 (Lecturer). This particular Action Learning lab pairs student teams drawn from MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley with high-tech startup founders and executives to collaborate on strategically significant entrepreneurial projects.

In BetterVet’s case, their E-Lab team is preparing a one-year marketing plan and budget to help the startup grow its marketing strategy beyond its current focus on millennials. This new plan will allow the company to target younger pet owners who prefer virtual consultations to brick-and-mortar vet clinics and track future growth via detailed analytics and data.

“We feel very lucky to work with these students,” says Julia Herzfelder, a BetterVet financial analyst and Harvard economics major who corresponds regularly with the E-Lab team.

Ellen could not agree more. As a student at MIT Sloan, she sought opportunities to expand her entrepreneurial skills. As an alumna, she endeavors to provide such opportunities to current students by serving as a mentor and an entrepreneurial sounding board.

“It’s tremendous what these students are able to accomplish when given the chance to work with a small company like ours,” says Ellen. “Entrepreneurship is such a major component of our economy now, and it’s a big part of the larger MIT Sloan community. The dream of being an entrepreneur is so important to the students here, and we have a role to play in that.”

Collaborating with E-Lab is the latest manifestation of this role, but Ellen is not limiting her involvement with MIT Sloan to the spring semester. BetterVet will support several student internships this summer, and as they expand the business throughout the greater Boston area and beyond, they will be looking to MIT Sloan to succeed.

“This is the DNA of MIT: coming together with so many intelligent, innovative, and wonderful people to create something new,” says Ellen. “In this case, we came together to care for our pets.”

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