Kayleigh Harkey loves animals. She particularly loves her Blue Nose Pitbull, Gunther. And she thinks Gunther, and all other dogs, need GPS devices should they wander — or bolt, should a squirrel dash by — out of the front door.
Having found the need, the former vet tech is working to fill it, with the founding of Perdido Fido; so hard, in fact, that she just won the Howard County Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur’s Award.
Harkey thinks that microchipping pets, which has become popular in the last 15 to 20 years, serves a purpose. But she also knows that chips can move around inside the dog’s body. And that the ever more present GPS technology is getting smaller and smaller, and it’s now small enough for attach to furry friends.
While there has been competition in the pet GPS arena for some time, Harkey feels she can offer a product that will be different enough to gain traction in a pet supply industry that reported an all-time high $60.28 billion in revenues in 2015, according to the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Pet Product Association (APPA).
“The pet humanization trend is alive and well, and continues to drive growth at the premium end of the market,” said Bob Vetere, APPA president and CEO. “As millennials prepare to take the reins from the baby boomer generation as the primary demographic of pet owners, they stand to further develop this trend.”
Back to School
Harkey’s entrepreneurial journey began when she studied at the Vet Tech Institute, in Pittsburgh, then worked for Veterinary Centers of America for five years. “I loved it,” she said, “but something was missing,”
So, after a period of international travel with her husband, Stephen (who holds degrees in physics and math from Penn State), she decided to return to school for her (just completed) degree in international business at Howard Community College (HCC). The program requires students to take a class with Roger Weber, associate professor of entrepreneurship.
Around this time came a simple drive around her hometown of Hanover, Pa. “I saw all of these lost pet signs and thought about how they needed a GPS,” Harkey said. “We live in Baltimore City, which makes the thought of losing your pet even scarier.”
That’s when she and her husband sat down and did some research about what features she’d like the Perdido Fido GPS device to have. Then, it was time to find a 3-D printer.
And what luck she had. “HCC just got a 3-D printer and wanted to show off the inventions of some students, so they built my prototype 3-D collar,” she said. “I’ve been working with Mark Edelen (associate professor and chair of engineering and technology), and now I have the plastic mold.”
“What’s different about her [collar] is that it will recharge its battery and run off of kinetic energy,” said Edelen. “A health tracking system is another part of the plan, so the collar will have a pouch to hold a couple of days’ worth of medicine.”
The collar isn’t as small as desired just yet, but Harkey and Edelen are getting there.
“She’s actively seeking engineering support to work on making the device smaller,” Edelen said. “There are constraints [to address], like fitting all of the electronics in there. It has to fit smaller dogs and even cats.”
Calling Harkey “extraordinarily motivated,” he also knows that she needs to work not only hard, but smart. “Sometimes, she feels like she’s in over her head,” he said, “but that self-awareness is also what we believe will ultimately lead to her success. When she needs direction, she knows who to ask.”
Perdido Fido has been an early highlight of HCC’s new 3-D printing venture. “This is one of the first pilot projects that we’ve done with the lab, so it’s the perfect first project to us to brag about to other students and community members who have similar goals,” Edelen said.
Betty Noble, an assistant dean at HCC, pointed out that the college’s programs now include an associate’s degree that provides pathways to transfer into bachelor’s degree programs at colleges such as Babson and the University of Baltimore, as well as a career associate’s degree that leads students directly to a job or to their own startup; there is also a certificate program for those who simply want to enhance their understanding of entrepreneurship.
“Unique to HCC is our individualized program, where people wanting to launch a business work with a coach, one-on-one, to move forward to launch,” Noble said. “This is, by far, our fastest growing program.”
Next on HCC’s agenda is adding an experiential capstone course to its degree curriculum.
“This will provide students who are ready to graduate with a final experience in entrepreneurship involving launching a startup as part of a team,” she said. “We’re also expanding the offerings in our individualized program to include coaching in specific content required by a startup, like legal issues, financing and marketing.”
Tierra Bonaldi, spokesperson for the APPA, noted the competition for the dollar in the lucrative pet care market. “There are a few dozen of these types of devices on the market, and some have been available for at least five years,” she said. “Companies like Garmin that are in the human fitness industry are also moving into the pet side.”
And know that microchips can have a GPS, too. “While they can travel within the body, they can still be found,” Bonaldi said. “If the GPS is on the collar instead of being injected into the pet, you’d have to be sure it’s charged and that the collar is on; many dogs don’t even wear collars when they’re home.”
With this knowledge, Harkey plans to apply to the University of Baltimore’s entrepreneurial program.
“I won a $2,000 scholarship from the Howard County Muslim Council and that money is going toward getting a patent attorney and building a functioning, working prototype, then developing my web site. Then I’ll start presenting it to investors, hopefully by the end of the summer.”
Her point is that keeping your pet safe shouldn’t be a luxury that only well-off people can afford. “Most of these types of collars have varying functionality and cost about $100,” adding that she plans to sell hers for $50 to $75. “I grew up without any money. I know how it feels.”