Annie Pankowski, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, never expected to add co-founder of a tech startup to her list of accomplishments. However, during the pandemic, veterinarians noticed a sharp increase in demands for care services and strained to find ways to maximize the efficiency of their staff and referral management systems
So, Annie and her sister, Ali Pankowski, founded Transfur, Inc. as a direct solution to this industry-wide problem.
The platform allows veterinarians to request, send and review the medical records of patients who have received care from other clinics through a business-to-business software model. It uses artificial intelligence to extract relevant information from an animal’s previous medical history. The founders say it could be used by a variety of veterinary professionals, including specialists, primary care providers and care coordinators.
Pankowski was supposed to begin work at a campus research lab when COVID-19 put a halt to operations in spring 2020. While coursework shifted virtual, she then returned home to California, where her sister also studies veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis . To keep busy in their free time, the siblings decided to help their mom, a veterinarian, at their practice.
It was at her mother’s clinic that Pankowski experienced the tediousness of current record-keeping and sharing techniques.
“I wanted to get more experience in the lingo and incoming cases,” Pankowski said. “I would pre-read all of her cases that were coming in that day and write a short history with important things my mom should look out for before she goes into this consultation with the client… It was mostly an exercise for myself.”
However, even when Pankowski went back to Wisconsin for school, she continued writing up client notes for her mother.
“She said it was super helpful because she didn’t have enough time to really go through each record. So even when I wasn’t helping home, I was at school doing that for her on the weekends,” Pankowski recalled. “I was laughing to myself like, ‘There’s got to be some technology that could do this better than how I’m doing it.'”
Thus, the idea for Transfur began to emerge—an idea that would eventually transform into a computer software solution that efficiently completes what Pankowski spent time doing by hand. It was during this time that she happened to come across an ad from Varsity Venture Studio, backed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and High Alpha Innovation, an Indianapolis-based venture studio that partners with large companies and universities to innovate through startup creation.
“It said, ‘Do you have a need for technology to provide a solution in your life?’ And I was like, yeah, actually,” Pankowski said.
After talking with her sister, they decided to submit a few short sentences in response to the call to action, detailing the current issues around inefficient record management in the veterinary profession. Neither necessarily expected anything to come of it, but they believed they had a million-dollar idea and needed to start somewhere.
Initially, Varsity Venture Studio evaluated around 150 total submissions. The Pankowski sisters were asked to flesh out their idea further and further as time went on. Eventually, they found themselves meeting with Varsity’s leadership. They got a call of congratulations when they were chosen as one of 15 ideas to advance to the exploration phase of the process.
Every month after that, they met bi-weekly with Varsity to come up with answers to technical, business-oriented questions: What is the exact problem? What does the solution look like? Who would benefit from this solution?
After the exploration phase, the Pankowskis’ idea was one of four final business ideas selected to participate in a “sprint week” right before final exams in April of 2021. Varsity’s sprint week essentially compresses six months of a startup’s life into three and a half days, which includes customer meetings, financial modelling, design and more. The sprint week culminates in a pitch session, where teams present their business ideas to a room of venture capitalists for potential investment.
“We got to listen to everybody else’s pitch when they gave it. One of them had already started a business. One of them was a lawyer already. And there were all these super successful people that, you know, they’ve already done it. They’ve already been there,” Pankowski said. “We weren’t really expecting to be selected for investment, honestly, just because of the caliber of pitches that were given.”
The idea of Transfur, however, was extremely compelling to the investors in the room. The Pankowski sisters suddenly added entrepreneurs to their resumes.
“When we found out we were selected for investment, it was honestly a shock. When we were on the call, I thought they were just going to say, ‘Thanks so much. You guys are awesome, it was so fun to work with you. But ultimately, we decided someone else.’ And that wasn’t the conversation,” she added.
Looking back on the experience, Pankowski is grateful for the support provided at UW-Madison for those hoping to transform ideas or innovations into products and services, and the entrepreneurial approach encouraged on campus.
Despite securing funding for the startup, Pankowski and her sister don’t plan to drop out of veterinary school. Already in her third year, Annie emphasized the importance of finishing her education at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. She has no plans to become a CEO, but she and Ali will remain on the advisory board of the company. Because Transfur was launched through the venture studio model, the company is able to develop and scale quickly with support in essential functions like hiring, finance, human resources, legal, marketing and design.
“I think that what really drove the product that we want to use this in our lives,” Pankowski said. “The impact you could have on veterinarians is pretty profound.”