Entrepreneur finds pet microchip problem unsolvable

Owner apathy, tangled industry leads Check the Chip to give up

Published: July 16, 2015
By Edie Lau

Photo by Slava Blazer/courtesy Olivia White
Entrepreneur Olivia White, shown with her dog Chloe, is done trying to streamline the pet microchip identification system. “We gave it the ol’ college try and we want nothing more to do with it," she said.
A Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose expertise is solving problems for startup companies has abandoned a seven-year quest to improve the convoluted, widely misunderstood system of identifying lost pets through their implanted microchips.

“It’s still a mess and will always be a mess,” concluded Olivia White, founder and CEO of Check the Chip Inc. “I just firmly believe that it cannot be fixed.”

White gave up on the system last month after testing an idea of placing kiosks in pet stores to educate pet owners about how microchip scanners work and to impress upon them the importance of registering their pets’ chip numbers. The event drew a low turnout, and pet owners seemed largely indifferent to understanding the issue.

“They need to be involved in the process, and at this point, I don’t know who’s more to blame,” White said in an interview. “Microchip companies may have built this confusing, convoluted system, but as a pet owner, it’s your responsibility to make sure (your pets) are protected. … I don’t know. I don’t know what else to do.”

A pug owner, White stumbled into the perplexing field of pet microchips in 2008 after joining a pug meetup group. White — whose surname at the time was Sadlowski — received an email from the group about a lost pug. “Someone gave the microchip number, I started looking into it and I fell down the rabbit hole,” she recollected.

White learned that the microchip number by itself wasn’t sufficient to identify an animal. The microchip has to be registered to the owner and the finder needs to know with which registry, out of multitudes, the information is housed. Due to the competitive nature of the market, companies selling microchips have been resistant to creating a single, all-encompassing registry.

She also learned that microchips used different radio frequencies, such that not all scanners could read all chips. (This problem has since eased as more microchip vendors sell chips that operate on a common frequency set by the International Standards Organization, a Europe-based group that develops voluntary standards for global consistency. Compliant chips are known as ISO chips.)

Provoked by the flaws in the system, White founded a company she called Chloe Standard, named for her dog Chloe, to try to fix them. The company’s first order of business was to create an online search engine to streamline the work of identifying which registry was associated with a given chip number. The site debuted in August 2009.

The following month, the American Animal Hospital Association
(AAHA), a nonprofit organization well-known in the animal-health community, launched a similar tool. Not wishing to add further confusion to the field, Chloe Standard withdrew its search engine several months later. Fifteen registries currently participate in the AAHA online lookup tool. During the past six months, the tool was used an average of nearly 66,000 times a month, according to AAHA.

White told the VIN News Service last summer that her company, renamed Check the Chip Inc., was still working on the microchip issue with the intent of bridging the gap between implanting chips and getting them registered.

Late last month, White surrendered.

She came to the decision after testing the company’s ideas in five independent pet stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Check the Chip provided flyers to promote a special event involving free scanning of pets’ microchips. The stores were asked to handle marketing, mainly through social media. The company hoped to attract 200 pet owners coming specifically to better understand how microchips work.

The event drew two people.

In all, fewer than 100 customers participated, mostly people who happened by with their dogs while shopping. White and her team discovered that most had no idea with which database their pets were registered. Few seemed to understand that microchip registries are separate entities from the people or organizations that implant microchips.

Asked where their ownership data was kept, White reported, “They’d say, ‘With the shelter.’ ‘With the pet store.’ ‘With the vet.’ They had no clue.

“And the worst part?” White continued. “They had zero percent concern about any of this. None of them said, ‘You know what, I’m so glad you told me because if anything happened, I don’t know who I would have called!’ ”

Check the Chip had intended to create a registry that anyone could use, regardless of chip brand. The in-store kiosks would have been a place for pet owners to learn more about microchips and register their pets’ chip numbers and ownership information.

White had thought that creating a single, well-known registry would be the key to making the system work better. “That would be the only way to solve this problem, is … becoming the household name of pet registrations,” she said, observing that pet owners  today “can’t say for certain what any one (registration database) is called.”

Check the Chip and its predecessor Chloe Standard had funding from investors and employed 24 people over the years, White said. She declined to say how much money went into the effort, only that it was “enough.” “This wasn’t a student project,” she said. “It was a full-fledged attempt to solve a problem. It cost us a lot of money, and we had a lot of amazing people working for us.”

Absent microchip companies cooperating to create a single universal registry and considering the apparent disinterest by pet owners, White said she knows of no way to make the identification system more cohesive and easy to use.

“I’m so convinced that there’s no humanly possible way, unless all of the companies decide they’re all going to work together, which is never going to happen!” she said.

In a moment of frustration, White said she is so disillusioned with the system that she’s tempted to cancel her two dogs’ microchip registrations as a personal protest. The temptation is especially great because the dogs have chips from companies that do not participate in the registry-lookup online tool.

Later, White expressed a more tempered perspective. “I don't want pet owners to think microchips or their registration is useless,” she said by email. “Quite the opposite. The microchip technology is fantastic. The databases work (generally) ... how to put a better system in front of pet owners is the frustrating part. Because the system is so chaotic, they approach their own pet's microchip with confusion ...”

White said her company found in a survey much enthusiam among pet owners for the idea of having easy access to scanners to regularly check that their pets’ chips function correctly. Registration was another matter.

“We left the public test shaking our heads and realized what our path forward would have looked like — we would have spent millions on an informational campaign about how microchips work, then asked them to visit a kiosk, only to leave them confused about which database to check or register with. Our effort to ‘bridge the gap’ may only have led to more confusion,” White lamented.

At AAHA, the senior communications manager, Kate Wessels, agrees that the system is frustrating and complicated but says it works enough to make it worthwhile.

By way of illustration, she told of finding a stray dog last year in Colorado. She took the dog to her veterinarian to have it scanned. The dog had a microchip that was registered to a man in Michigan. He turned out to be the owner’s brother; the owner hadn’t updated the ownership information on the dog’s registration. Through the veterinarian’s perseverance, the dog was reunited with its owner.

“It really is a team effort,” Wessels said. “The owner, the veterinarian, the registries — it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

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