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A Tech Entrepreneur Finds a Niche in Pouncing on Law-Breaking Pet Owners

This story appears in the February 2012 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Tom Boyd of Knoxville, Tenn., has been an entrepreneur for 50 years. He created Fi-Shock, one of the first electric fences for dogs and livestock; Mark Electronics, a major electronics supplier; EDP Biotech, which is researching an early detection test for colon cancer; and BioPet Vet Lab, a DNA testing service for determining dog ancestry.

That may have been enough to keep most people satisfied, but in 2009, Boyd was bitten by the business bug once again, so he asked his DNA experts to brainstorm untapped niches for the technology. The answer? Dog poop. Enter BioPet Vet Lab's PooPrints, a service that fingers dumping doggies via the DNA in their stools. "After a year of testing, we found our technology had 100 percent accuracy," Boyd says, "and I've always been in the dog business, so it was a natural fit."

PooPrints operates as an exclusive distributorship. The company's distributors sign contracts with apartment buildings, homeowners associations, nature centers, small towns or any group hoping to keep parks and sidewalks clear of pet waste. The PooPrints owner collects DNA swabs from all the pooches in the neighborhood, and BioPet adds them to a database. The next time an unexpected present is found, a small sample is sent to BioPet, where it is compared to the database, the culprit is revealed and the owner is assessed a fine.

"That is usually enough of a deterrent to solve the problem," says Eric Mayer, director of business development for PooPrints, which has 10 units nationwide and another 200 in the works, as well as a distributorship in Singapore and a pending deal in Israel. "That's a lot of pressure if you're singled out."

Boyd and Mayer gave us the scoop.

PooPrintsHow does the business work?

Boyd: We call ourselves "a distributorship" because, unlike a franchise, we don't ask for any investment upfront. [The company does require distributors to purchase a minimum of $5,000 in DNA testing equipment.] PooPrints is homebased, and we sell territories of roughly 100,000 people with a six-month window to expand nearby. Apartment complexes usually put in a dog-maintenance fee and make anyone with a dog take the test. Since apartments usually have a 50 or 60 percent annual turnover, the distributor can sell to the same complex for an unlimited number of years. And at any time a city can pass a law requiring all dogs to be tested. The average city of 100,000 has 25,000 dogs; our distributors will be in place to reap that bonanza.

It's just dog poop. Why make such a big deal of it?

Boyd: Three or four years ago the public didn't know how bad dog waste is for you. In the last two years, the EPA has ranked it as bad as toxic chemicals and oil. Then Consumer Reports ranked dog waste as the sixth biggest gripe in America. Those two things created an opportunity for us to enter the market.

Mayer: The environmental impact has become a really big issue. The population of dogs has exploded, and each dog creates 275 pounds of waste. That's more than 20 billion pounds per year. Forty percent of that stays on the ground and isn't disposed of sanitarily. Twenty percent of contamination in waterways can be traced to canine sources, and it kills fish and produces E. coli and salmonella. Anywhere near water, PooPrints has been in high demand.

Are you planning to expand your services?

Mayer: The beauty of PooPrints is the opportunity to have other income streams. You can combine it with an existing poop pickup service. We're going to offer our distributors doggie bags as well as other items to sell to their clients. Downstream, we think we need a total waste solution--some sort of disposal method that incinerates it on the spot or disposes of it in the safest way.

Has anyone gotten angry for being caught?

Boyd: Our worst offender so far was a lady whose dog was caught by her apartment complex three times. She claimed she was just testing the system, and is now convinced it works. Or maybe now she just cleans up after her dog.

Written By

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.