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Smart-toy manufacturer works hard for a treat

The interactive dog product PupPod is named best in show at the Kansas City Investment Forum.

Smart-toy manufacturer works hard for a treat
PupPod CEO Erick Eidus, center, accepts the Innovation Award. With him are Brad Holen, left, director of commercial operations at award sponsor Animalytix, and 2012 presenter Karthik Ramachandran, co-founder of Likarda.

Lots of practice made perfect for Erick Eidus and his young company, PupPod Inc., which captured the Innovation Award at the KC Animal Health Corridor’s ninth annual Investment Forum.

Eidus’ presentation, which followed about 200 rehearsals, earned the admiration of judges, a $10,000 check and applause from hundreds of potential investors and business partners who filed into a ballroom to hear 18 up-and-coming companies pitch an animal health product.

PupPod is also the brand name of a smart toy that Eidus and co-founder Kandarp Jani designed to engage a dog through activity and food rewards. The modified Kong Wobbler rubber toy — its innards are filled with electronics instead of treats — connects to a smartphone app and a Bluetooth-enabled food dispenser. (The compatible Pet Tutor dispenser, made by Smart Animal Training Systems, is sold separately.)

Eidus spoke onstage and afterward about the device and his Kirkland, Washington, company.

The PupPod smart toy has a Kong Wobbler shell and high-tech brains.

How does the toy work?

“First, Ollie [Eidus’ year-old Australian shepherd] just has to show up in front of the toy. The motion sensors detect that he’s come by for a sniff, and he gets a reward. Once he makes the connection that the toy is the key to getting rewards, then the learning process begins. Next, he has to learn to touch the toy, then he has to learn to touch the toy within two seconds of a treat sound. Then we increase the time interval between sounds so Ollie has to concentrate for longer. Then we add a second sound and Ollie has to learn to discriminate between sounds. And finally, Ollie has to learn self-control to only touch the toy when the treat sound plays.”

Why is it a better dog toy?

“[Ollie] gets bored with the squeaky toys and chew toys that are standard in the industry. … I believe we can build better products for our dogs [to] keep them mentally engaged. We are building dog toys for the internet age.”

How much time does Ollie spend with PupPod?

“He earns his breakfast and dinner by playing PupPod. He spends an hour and a half to earn one cup of kibble. He walks about a mile playing the game, and then he sleeps for an hour and a half.”

Is it a high-tech babysitter?

“PupPod is not a replacement for human contact. When I don’t have time to be with Ollie, it makes me feel good to know he’s having fun, he’s mentally engaged and he’s working for his food.”

Who is your target audience?

“Dog trainers immediately get the benefits of mental stimulation for dogs, and they’re recommending puzzle toys to all their clients. Once we have an early adopter group of dog trainers onboard, we’re going to focus our attention on the pet parents who are buying connected dispensers with cameras because they want to see their dogs remotely and give them treats remotely.”

What about veterinarians?

“After I came back from the Investment Forum, Ollie tore a ligament in his shoulder, so he had to be on light activity. He couldn’t roughhouse, he couldn’t fetch, he couldn’t go on hikes. I placed PupPod close to the dispenser so he doesn’t have to do a lot of activity. It kept him engaged for an hour, an hour and a half. Having an activity that keeps dogs engaged as they’re trying to recover from an injury or an operation could be an interesting hook for the veterinary community.”

What does PupPod cost?

“The price for consumers is $179. The price for dog trainers is $99 because we’re trying to grow that group.”

What’s next?

“We’re in the midst of fundraising, so hopefully we get more exposure from the folks that are here, that follow up with us afterward. We received our second production run [after selling an initial 500] and now we’re shifting from a development phase to a sales and marketing phase. … But I want to stress we have multiple products on our roadmap. The additional products will give pet parents more control over how they interact with their dog remotely. It will allow us to run multiple games on the same hardware, and it will enable new scenarios like multiplayer games.”

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