An average of 24 horses die at U.S. racetracks every week, according to a 2012 New York Times investigation.
In some of these cases, catastrophic injuries suffered by horses—which can also cause serious harm to the jockeys riding them—are freak, unforeseen incidents. But there are also times when the people who train horses and monitor them closely in the days before competitions observe subtle hints that an animal might not be fit to race, says David Ergun. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Asto CT, a Madison, WI-based startup that’s developing a computed tomography (CT) scanning machine designed specifically to peer inside the legs, heads, and necks of horses. Earlier detection of problems could help avoid some of the catastrophic injuries that affect horses and also harm jockeys.
“Sometimes [racehorses] will exhibit a little bit of lameness, where they’re favoring a leg,” Ergun says. “Lameness is a condition that a lot of horses exhibit and it’s very difficult to diagnose without being able to image them. It’s just hard to tell.”
Breeding and training racehorses has long been a rich man’s sport. But Ergun says there had been little attention paid, or investment made in a CT scanner for large animals back in 2014, when three of Asto CT’s co-founders helped file a patent for the design of its device, which it calls Equina (the business was officially formed the following year).
Since then, Asto CT has raised $650,000 in seed funding from its founding team and outside investors, Ergun says. The startup is hoping to raise another $300,000 as part of its current round of financing, and a $3.5 million Series A funding round further down the road, he says.
Ergun says that today, horses needing CT scans are usually brought to high-volume equine veterinarians. In preparation for the procedure, animals are placed under general anesthesia. A crane-like machine lifts them onto a motorized gurney able to support heavy loads so that the horse is laying down flat, and then the imaging can begin.
“It’s very kludgy,” Ergun says of the current process. “It’s not well-tuned to image horses.”
One of the major risks with scanning horses today is that they often do not come out of anesthesia very well, Ergun says. Their size and strength makes them prone to injure themselves, sometimes fatally, he says.
With the device Asto CT is developing, horses would still need to be mildly sedated. But that’s something that people who handle horses commonly do to their animals for tasks like putting shoes on their feet. Part of the reason that there wouldn’t be a need for general anesthesia when using Asto CT’s machine is that horses would remain standing throughout the procedure.
The company has released renderings of its scanner, and from the side it looks like a metal detector sitting on a platform with a ramp in front. There are vertical tracks along the insides of the two columns designed to guide a donut-shaped part that’s initially positioned parallel to—and flush with—the ground. A horse requiring images of its front legs would have its feet placed in the middle of the donut, and that part would then rise up a few feet, stopping before hitting the animal’s belly.
In addition to being able to move up and down, the donut-shaped part can also rotate 90 degrees so that it’s perpendicular to the ground. This capability makes it possible for the machine to also image a horse’s head and neck.
Ergun says that due in large part to the risk that comes with putting horses under general anesthesia, they are rarely imaged for diagnostic purposes. Typically, a CT scan is only ordered when it’s already been decided that an animal will have surgery, he says.
Asto CT expects that when it starts shipping its machines in May 2017, they will cost about $650,000 apiece. Ergun says the first one will likely be finished in January, at which point his team will start using it to image live horses. According to company materials, an FDA clearance is not required for veterinary imaging devices.
The startup also plans to offer a mobile imaging service, where it would bring machines out to stables where horses are boarded. Ergun says the manufacturer his company is working with to develop its device, Boxboro, MA-based PhotoDiagnostic Systems, has experience building industrial-grade baggage scanners for use in airports. Asto CT’s machine would be more rugged than many of the systems designed for human use, he says.
Even though horses are the primary animal mentioned on Asto CT’s website and in marketing materials, the company says that Equina could also potentially be used to image smaller animals such as dogs and cats.
Besides Ergun, the startup’s other three co-founders are: Peter Muir, a surgeon at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine; Mark Markel, dean of UW-Madison’s vet school; and Rock Mackie, a serial entrepreneur and engineering professor at the university. Ergun is Asto CT’s sole full-time employee, though the company has hired contractors for things like developing the user interface for the software a veterinarian would use to operate one of the devices.
Earlier this week, Ergun was in Orlando, FL for a trade show organized by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. He says there were representatives from other businesses developing CT scanners for horses at the convention, including New York-based Equine 4DDI. Ergun says that company’s device was originally designed for human use and has been amended to accommodate larger creatures. He believes the fact that his company is building its machine from the ground up with animals in mind gives it an advantage over Equine 4DDI’s scanner, which he called “expensive.”
The race is on.