Katherine van Ekert’s individual streak

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Katherine van Ekert
Photography: Simon Scott

If one thing defines the career of former veterinarian Katherine van Ekert, it is variety. Her CV boasts everything from experience as a vet and animal rights advocate to Silicon Valley entrepreneur. And now she’s promoting her latest endeavour, a tool to automate medical record keeping. By Kathy Graham

For veterinarians wanting to expand their horizons beyond clinical work, there are plenty of other avenues to explore. Just ask Katherine van Ekert, whose resume is testament to the myriad opportunities if you crave the unknown—“I didn’t want to go down a predictable path”—and you’re willing “to think outside the box”. Her career trajectory has included everything from stints with PETA to founding a veterinary startup in the Silicon Valley. Now van Ekert is focused on Goldie, a next generation transcription tool that records your appointments and writes comprehensive medical records for you.

And yes, even as a student at the University of Sydney, there were signs van Ekert’s career path would be a little unconventional. Passionate about animal welfare, she couldn’t help but notice a disconnect between her “empathy and connection with animals” and some of her experiences at vet school where she “sometimes felt that the practical work we were doing wasn’t quite in line with what had drawn me to becoming a vet”. van Ekert recalls in first year anatomy having to dissect greyhounds and ex-racehorses who had been euthanised “because they were no longer fast enough. The brutality of that was quite striking,’ she says, “especially as a young 19-year-old who’d become a vet because I wanted to help animals”.

Before long, van Ekert had joined the executive committee of the student-based organisation, Veterinary Science for Animal Welfare. 

Her commitment to animal welfare didn’t wane after graduation. In 2010, van Ekert with fellow students Dr Rosemary Elliott and Dr Adele Lloyd founded Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics. The group—with which van Ekert is still involved as vice-president—continues to engage in many activities including participating in government inquiries into animal welfare legislation, mentoring veterinary students, and publicly promoting the need for improved animal welfare for all animals via the media.

As a freshly minted veterinarian, van Ekert also held various clinical jobs including with the RSPCA in Newcastle where she “did a mixture of consultations, shelter work and inspectorial cases”. She then worked as a district vet before landing a position with the Bureau of Animal Welfare within the Victorian Government where she worked in animal welfare legislation. 

If there’s a theme emerging from her career choices, it’s that van Ekert “wanted to have the most impact. Being a clinical vet, I wasn’t going to have as much impact broadly on the largest number of animals. That’s why I dabbled in working from a legislative perspective.”

She also didn’t want a predictable career path. So when she left her government job and moved to San Francisco with her husband, the exciting world of startups beckoned where she thought she could also pursue her passion for animal welfare.

Most of my pivots have involved a large amount of compromise and uncertainty, as well as the need to actively work against my own self-talk. But life is too precious not to try things that inspire you—to dabble your toes in the what-ifs sometimes. There are other options.

Katherine van Ekert

“My husband was involved in startups, our social network was startups, we were in our 20s and very optimistic so I was like, ‘Okay, if my general life theme is to try and maximise the ways of improving animal welfare, I will try and work that angle now from a startup perspective. That was my plan.”

Instead, her first gig was in operations at a food delivery startup, feeding the hungry software engineers of Silicon Valley. “It sounds very tangential, but I wanted to understand business because I’d had nothing to do with that previously. It was a strategic means of understanding startup life and how the mechanics of all that work.”

Soon after, she co-founded VetPronto, an on-demand veterinary house call business that got backing from the very well recognised startup incubator, Y-Combinator (which funded Airbnb and Dropbox), and at its peak operated in 13 states in the USA. 

“This was 2017, and in Silicon Valley at the time, Uber was beginning to really take off, and then all these spinoff concepts like on-demand [pharmaceutical] drug delivery, on-demand food delivery. We thought, ‘Why not, on-demand vet delivery?’” van Ekert recalls, adding that the goal was to make vet visits less stressful for all concerned. Moreover, the model resonated with a lot of vets who sought more work flexibility, in particular mums, a break from the stresses of clinic life, and a higher hourly pay rate.

But the venture was relatively short-lived and in 2020, was sold to Vetted Petcare which later folded for financial reasons. van Ekert reflects, “A lot of on-demand models, such as food delivery services, rely on paying contractors low hourly rates. So even if these workers are not fully utilised, it doesn’t cost the business that much. That didn’t work for a veterinary business, where we were paying highly-qualified professionals high hourly rates.”

van Ekert was disappointed that this business model ultimately didn’t work, but philosophical, aware that “most startups fail”. She’d also gained something more valuable to her than money; “a self-confidence to take more risks and trust myself in ways that had previously eluded me”. She was also keen by now to return to her first love, animal welfare, and accepted a job in corporate relations at PETA in the US. “PETA is very effective in many ways at what they do. I wanted to experience their inner workings to see what drives their effectiveness.”

Katherine van Ekert

At PETA, her work “was mainly with food companies improving practices in their supply chains”. One passion project was promoting the use of polled bulls in the dairy industry. Polled cattle naturally lack horns, which in turn eradicates the need to disbud calves raised for the dairy industry, a painful procedure. “I could definitely say that we got the conversation going at the national level with the United States dairy council, and at all levels of the supply chain, and some of the big food companies do now have policies that state their suppliers should be breeding for polled cattle.

“It was actually my dream job, and I only quit because I had a baby, and at three months, the standard in California is to go back to work and I was having to travel all over the US for that role, and I didn’t want to leave a three-month-old baby to do that,” says van Ekert.

When she returned to Australia with her young family at the start of COVID, although van Ekert would’ve liked to work as a large animal vet, birth injuries precluded this. “I can’t work as a vet anymore because I can’t be on my feet. Because we live in a rural setting now, it would’ve been a nice way of being involved in the community. And I love cows! But also, you are working with large animals mainly for the purposes of ultimately slaughtering them.” She sighs. “Life is not black and white.”

It wasn’t on van Ekert’s radar to do a startup again but when her software engineer husband introduced her to ChatGPT, she saw its potential. “I thought, ‘I wonder how that would work with summarising a consult?’ I just played around with some audios of pretend consults and it was just amazing.”

It also planted a seed for what was to become Goldie, a web app that records appointments and instantly generates a comprehensive medical record. At present, Goldie is accessed from a browser but van Ekert aims to eventually integrate it with medical record systems, “so you’re not even aware of it; Goldie will just work in the background to do all your records for you”.

With such a varied resume, van Ekert is the first to admit she gets “very restless with routines and conventions”, and that her career has reflected that. If there are other vets like her who wish for other career options outside of standard clinical practice, she encourages them to take a leap, even if the path forward is unclear. 

“Most of my pivots have involved a large amount of compromise and uncertainty, as well as the need to actively work against my own self-talk,” she says. “But life is too precious not to try things that inspire you—to dabble your toes in the what-ifs sometimes. There are other options.”

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