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One to watch: In the equine elite

One to watch: In the equine elite

Operating within the intensely competitive global thoroughbred industry, Equinome has stolen a march with a product that helps maximise the genetic potential of top horses. Jim Aughney talks to the woman behind the science, Dr Emmeline Hill

When I arrive at UCD Belfield to interview Dr Emmeline Hill, she is having her photograph taken for this article about her company Equinome. Photographer Angela wonders about using props and I ask Hill if we might use the award she has won. “Which one?” she asks without a trace of bravado.

It’s a fair response. In 2004 Hill received Ireland’s most prestigious award for young scientists – the Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI) President of Ireland Young Researcher Award. In 2010 she was named the Image Entrepreneur of the Year, and in January her company Equinome was shortlisted for the Irish Times/ InterTradeIreland 2011 Innovation Awards.

Yet the company employs a mere six people for now, including Hill and managing director Donal Ryan. The key to Equinome’s success to date, and its ability to catch the eye of award judges, is based on the fact that its product is truly unique worldwide.

Equinome operates in the intensely competitive world of the global thoroughbred industry, which produces 100,000 expensive foals each year. For the past 300 years, thoroughbred horses have been bred to maximise their speed and stamina. Throughout those three centuries, Weatherbys General Stud Book has been the means of recording the most successful horses. The General Stud Book and the breeder’s experience and ‘eye’ have been the only tools used for selecting which horses to breed.

The Speed Gene Test

Equinome has developed the Speed Gene Test as a further third tool for breeders, trainers, owners and bloodstock agents to assist them in maximising the genetic potential of thoroughbred horses. The test, which is carried out in the labs at NovaUCD, can be used to predict the optimum racing distance for an individual thoroughbred. It does this by analysing the DNA sequence of a gene related to muscle mass development.

Equinome was established in 2009 as a result of groundbreaking research led by Hill in UCD’s School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, in partnership with Irish racehorse trainer Jim Bolger. In 2007 the genetic blueprint for the horse was unravelled for the first time – a whopping 2.7 billion units of information - in the findings by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the US revolutionised equine research. Hill was involved in that groundbreaking research programme.

Speed and stamina

Within two years Hill had identified the codes in the gene (myostatin) in a horse’s DNA that result in desirable athletic traits in the thoroughbred: speed and stamina.

“Our test can be used by trainers to optimise the racing opportunities of horses in a yard and it can be used in the breeding industry to select young stock. Our tests will tell you what each horse is likely to be good at,” she explains.

As part of her research, which was funded by SFI, Hill had to collect a large sample base of horses, achieving this through the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

“Many breeders gave anonymous samples for DNA analysis. We returned the results to them. One of them was Jim Bolger. When I met him a year later he asked me how the research was going and offered me samples from another 100 horses. We continued building on our research through his training yard in Kilkenny,” Hill explains.

As well as being one of Ireland’s most successful trainers – he holds the record of 125 flat winners in a season – Bolger is a successful breeder of champion horses like Teofilo and Soldier of Fortune.

“He was the first person I discussed the application of the research with and our partnership arose out of his generosity,” Hill explains. Jim Bolger is a director of Equinome as is Professor David MacHugh, associate professor of Genomics at UCD.

The research was based on 179 elite race winners and 142 two year olds in training with the same trainer.

Billion-dollar industry

Apart from Bolger, Equinome does not identify any of its clients as confidentiality is critical in the racing world. Clients do not have to identify the source of the samples sent to Equinome at UCD and the results of the speed test are also confidential to the client.

Equinome will only accept samples from known owners, breeders and trainers to prevent the possibility of stolen samples being used. “This is very valuable information in a billion-dollar industry,” Hill explains.

For a company that has only been in business for little over a year, Equinome is still enjoying international success. Hill has spoken at conferences and seminars of breeders’ associations in the US, Ireland, UK and Australia and the company’s speed test is now used by breeders and trainers in 10 markets, including Russia, France, South Africa and Japan. The industry is international by its nature and many breeders and owners have studs and yards in a number of countries.

“Our most successful market abroad has been Australia, which is great as it is the second largest thoroughbred market after the US,” Hill explains. The company faces a battle convincing many in the traditional thoroughbred industry about the benefits of the new technology.

“Where we differ from other companies that claim they can identify speed and stamina in a blood sample is we have carried out scientific research that has been peer reviewed and accepted in scientific journals. The science stands up to scrutiny,” Hill explains.

Equinome has negotiated an exclusive licence with UCD to use the research carried out by Hill and her team there. It has made a PCT filing for the intellectual property behind the Speed Gene Test. Equinome has received seed capital and is also receiving revenues from the tests it already carries out for clients in its 10 markets.

A disruptive technology

Managing director Ryan describes the Speed Gene Test as a “disruptive technology” which will go through certain phases of acceptance. “One breeder has used the test to focus on optimal mares for his breeding goals. The tests confirmed what he already suspected. It means he can predict the breeding outcome a year or more earlier than with traditional methods,” Ryan explains.

Because the lab test will identify whether a horse is a sprinter (6.1 furlongs or 1,300 metres) a middle distance horse (9.1 furlongs or 1,830) or a longer distance horse (11.1 furlongs), it allows trainers to optimise their training regime. It saves a trainer (and an owner) the expense of a season racing a horse in the wrong races.

The three gene characteristics are CC (short distance), CT (middle distance) and TT (long distance). Obviously, CC stallions will father CC foals if matched with a CC brood mare. CT, the middle distance type, combines the elements of speed with some stamina.

Hill says the Speed Test is growing in acceptance and by the end of 2011, horses will be advertised for sale using the CC, CT or TT label. “It’s great to hear people in the industry with no scientific experience refer to a horse as a CC or a CT type,” she says.

Equinome is not resting on its laurels, however, and will not be a one-trick pony. “We are investing in R&D and hope to have a second test product available by the end of this year,” Hill says.

Currently, Equinome is focusing on thoroughbreds involved in flat racing, despite the fact that Hill’s grandmother Charmaine Hill was the owner of Dawn Run – probably the best National Hunt horse of all time.

Staff numbers will increase as Equinome appoints people to focus on particular markets such as Australia.

“We will continue to carry out all tests here at NovaUCD,” says Ryan. “It is not information that is required within 24 hours, but we may look at a secure lab in Australia as the market there develops”.

What’s the betting that Hill and Equinome don’t qualify for another award to add to the collection in UCD before very long?

This article first appeared in Irish Director magazine, Spring 2011