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Updated: March 4, 2024 Innovation Hub

Breeding innovation: Rarebreed grows out of Maine’s animal-health hub

Photo / Tim Greenway Dan Espinal, left, and Sean Miller, of Rarebreed Veterinary Partners in their Portland office.

Like IDEXX Laboratories and ImmuCell before them, young Portland-area entrepreneurs are innovating further to advance animal health.

The new generation includes companies like Covetrus, a veterinary pharmacy, supplier and tech company, and ElleVet Sciences, which develops cannabis products and therapies for pets.

But perhaps the fastest-rising star is Rarebreed Veterinary Partners.

The company was launched in 2018 by two former IDEXX employees, Dan Espinal and Sean Miller, who felt they could improve animal health by applying lessons from the business of human health.

Rarebreed invests in veterinary practices and hospitals, typically taking a majority stake. Just as importantly, the company provides strategic guidance, marketing, staffing, operational support, IT and other help to improve practice performance.

Clinicians in human health banded together or sold their practices to larger entities long ago. But practitioners of animal health care — including the country’s 90,000 veterinarians — still typically work solo or in small, freestanding groups. There are few shared resources and little business support.

By contrast, CEO Espinal says, Rarebreed is “applying elements of technology, technical engineering, operational engineering and financial engineering to a business model that’s historically underserved many of the people who work in it — and frankly, clients as well.”

With $40 million from two funding rounds in 2019 and then several follow-on rounds, Rarebreed now runs about 120 practices and hospitals, from Maine to Florida. Espinal says the goal is to go national, with as many as 500 locations.

Private equity firms themselves are also buying veterinary providers. Recognizing the potential economies of scale, PE investors spent $45 billion on vet practices between 2017 and 2022, according to Pitchbook.

But Miller, who is chief strategy officer, believes Rarebreed is doing something — well, more rare.

“We are trying to innovate on the model that preceded us, which was largely ‘acquire as much as you can, as fast as you can.’ There wasn’t much connection to the company, or another practice down the street,” he says. “Our role, first and foremost, is really about building a community.”

How the field grew in Maine

The Portland area has recently sprouted as the Silicon Valley of animal health, but that distinction took root back in the early 1980s.

At the time, the world’s biotechnology pioneers were scaling up, attracting investment, and generating buzz about the potential of new sciences to improve human health.

Meanwhile, a Maine startup was quietly beginning to apply biological innovation in a different health field, veterinary medicine.

David Shaw created IDEXX Laboratories in 1983, after working for Gov. James Longley and as an agribusiness consultant in Massachusetts.

Shaw recognized a need for better diagnoses in livestock care, and how new technology could help. He launched IDEXX with four employees and the help of a recently founded biomedical testing company in Maine, Ventrex Laboratories.

Today, IDEXX (Nasdaq: IDXX) is headquartered in Westbrook and employs nearly 11,000 people. Its reach is worldwide, supplying diagnostic products and software to more than 50,000 veterinary practices in 175 countries and territories.

Another Maine company that’s carved a niche in veterinary health, ImmuCell Corp. (Nasdaq: ICCC), which initially worked on a biotechnology to purify milk protein for human use. But like IDEXX, the company recognized an unmet need. Eventually, ImmuCell shifted its focus to preventive health products for dairy and beef cattle. It now has a market cap of $40 million and 75 employees.

Our role, first and foremost, is really about building a community. 
Sean Miller, Rarebreed

Fast mover

Back at Rarebreed, the goal isn’t simply to grow fast, though that seems to be happening.

Rarebreed last year ranked No. 35 on the Inc. 5000 list of the country’s most rapidly growing private companies.

Revenue, according to Inc., skyrocketed 10,293% from 2020 through 2022. The actual amounts aren’t disclosed, but the growth percentage outdistanced any for the other 13 Maine companies on the list. And Rarebreed’s debut rank among the fast 5,000 was the highest for a Maine business since 2017.

Innovation has been a key driver of growth. For example, borrowing another playbook from human health, Rarebreed has launched an urgent-care spin-off called PetMedic. The business now has almost a dozen locations in New England — including clinics in Freeport and Portland — and more are planned down the East Coast.

Rarebreed has also come up with an innovative way to deploy information across all the clinics, practices and hospitals that make up its network.

A patent is now pending for its Corporate Veterinary Operating System, which Rarebreed describes as “a one-of-a-kind data integration, mapping and business intelligence capability” that connects the Rarebreed locations.

At the same time, Rarebreed is trying to strengthen connections with employees.

In addition to great pay and benefits, the company says, it’s created incentive-based compensation, as well as plenty of advancement opportunities, continuing education and a mentorship program.

The goal is to build stronger employee engagement, to build up the “ecosystem” of care providers in its network, and ultimately to build the Rarebreed brand.

“We want to be that place where, when people graduate from vet school, they think of first,” says Espinal. “And then, when they have a pet they think, wow, I want to be part of this medical system for pets because I’m going to get the best care possible.”

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