High tech for horses
A startup uses RFID technology to better train show riders.
ALLENTOWN, N.J. (FORTUNE Small Business) -- As Heidi Lemack-Beck rides her horse Jazzmine around the arena at Rhythm & Blues Stables in Allentown, N.J., six pairs of electronic eyes watch every move of these skilled competitors. Heidi quickens the pace of the 16-year-old mare from a trot to a canter, and the cameras swivel to track them - or rather to track the cracker-sized RFID tag stuck to the top of Heidi's helmet.
The systems that help drivers pay for their gas with the wave of a key fob and pass through toll booths without fumbling for change have made RFID, or radio-frequency identification, familiar to millions of consumers. And businesses are figuring out new ways to put RFID to work.
Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) says it has wrung more than $100 million in savings from its supply chain since it began asking vendors three years ago to tag shipments with RFID chips readable by Wal-Mart's tracking system. But less than 1% of its vendors have adopted the technology. The cost of each tag, about 40 cents, is just the beginning. As FSB wrote in "Wireless Grapes" (March 2006), even small vendors pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to integrate the system into their supply chains.
While the big guys fumble with the technology, a new generation of RFID entrepreneurs is finding niche markets. Take Jason Beck, 37, Heidi Lemack-Beck's husband and an instructor at Rhythm & Blues. He and Josh Horton, a database programmer who keeps a horse at the stable, developed the technology that's taping Heidi and her horse. Now Beck is selling the system for upwards of $10,000 to other stables via his startup, Integrated Equine Technologies.
Beck started experimenting with the idea a decade ago, he says, "because I wanted to teach riding more effectively."
In dressage, the slightest change in form can make a huge difference in the scores that judges assign. When training, riders usually watch themselves on mirrors posted around the arena - a practice that can distract the horse. Most stables lack the personnel to make useful videotapes of the practice sessions, which can run for hours. The automated system offers Heidi clear video footage of her ride from multiple angles. The system is patent pending and "sounds like a unique application of the technology," says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, an RFID trade association.
Entrepreneurs are coming up with more novel uses for RFID. RF Surgical, based in Bellevue, Wash., sells sponges that sound a warning to surgeons if they are being sewn inside patients. The company will add RFID to scalpels, forceps, and other surgical tools in mid-2008.
Integrated Equine wants to break into other markets where automating videotaping would be useful - "anything from homeland security to taping live theater," says Beck.
Later this year he hopes to install systems in as many as 40 other stables. Stable owners regularly pony up thousands of dollars for training devices, Beck says. His system would enable them to offer more effective feedback to equestrians - as well as to raise lesson prices.
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