Los Angeles has established itself as a major hub for adtech and media companies, but one nascent industry in the city involves the furry little friends that keep many of us ticking.
Pet-focused startups have built everything from dog-walking services to software platforms for veterinarians, but few have really tackled the age-old question: What can technology do for my cats?
Enter Anna Skaya.
Skaya’s genetics company, Basepaws, hopes to bring DNA testing to the cat world. But Basepaws is doing more than showing how closely related your cat is to a mountain lion. By analyzing DNA, the company is growing a global biobank of pet data that will help humans understand things like disease, nutrition and why cats insist on knocking things off tables.
Cats are the mammals most closely related to humans outside of primates.”
“We started Basepaws out of Singularity University — a Silicon Valley-based think tank and incubator — in 2016 because we saw the buzz around the work done by 23andMe, and quickly realized there wasn’t a similar product for pets,” Skaya said. “Not only could our pets benefit from this type of information, but cats are the mammals most closely related to humans outside of primates. They are the only other mammal that arrange their genes in the same way humans do, so this makes for an almost perfect genetic model to study human DNA.”
The process for extracting DNA from cats is exactly the same as how it’s collected from humans, though offering a treat or a discarded Amazon box as an incentive is advised. Using cheek cells and hair, Basepaws analyzes the more than 20,000 genes each cat possesses and compares them to cats in the company's biobank. While owners are provided genetic information related to their cat’s breed, abnormalities and susceptibility to disease, much of cat DNA is still unknown. By growing the biobank, Basepaws will be able to provide additional insights as genes are revealed, something that benefits both cats and humans.
“The cat is the only animal besides humans which naturally becomes sick from HIV (FIV in cats), and cats have been used to study HIV,” said Skaya. “Similarly, feline leukemia studies have become routine in human cancer work, and cat mammary tumors are already used as genetic models for humans. Cats share over 250 genetic diseases with humans, including polycystic kidney diseases, one of the most common genetic diseases in humans. Because of vast vet care and the level of scrutiny from cat owners, we have extensive knowledge of feline disease to overlay on human diseases.”
Basepaws is the first U.S.-based venture for Skaya, a three-time startup co-founder. In 2010, MyCityDeal, a U.K.-based startup Skaya co-founded, was acquired by Groupon, which appointed her as CEO of Groupon Russia. After moving on to launch VisualDNA Russia, Skaya opted to return to California in 2016 to attend Singularity University, where Basepaws was incubated. While her time in Russia came with its fair share of ups and downs, Skaya said she believes her bevy of experiences made her a stronger entrepreneur.
“Building Groupon was a whirlwind,” she said. “We grew 150 percent month-over-month for years and Forbes named us the fastest-growing company ever, but 12-14 hour workdays were the norm and staying on past midnight was not uncommon. I had very tough investors who expected perfection. There is a lot written about them, both good and bad, but my experience was mostly positive. Working for them made me work extra hard, and as one of the only female CEOs across 40 Groupon country offices, I had to show that I could be as tough, smart and resilient as the rest of them.”
While Skaya hits the fundraising trail in earnest, the company’s 100 percent month-over-month growth is creating a significant amount of buzz in its South Bay home. Looking back, Skaya admitted that the decision to relocate the startup from the Bay Area to Los Angeles definitely influenced the company’s early successes.
“When I started Basepaws, it was obvious early on that staying in the Bay Area didn’t make much sense,” she said. “I love LA, and believe this is truly the best place to build a company. Silicon Valley is close, the applicant pool is very strong, and there is a lot to say about being in a smaller pond.”