Free Enterprise Staff  | March 28, 2016

This Startup Knows if You Don’t Pick Up Your Dog’s Poop

After selling the company he had owned for 37 years, Tom Boyd wasn’t ready for retirement. He was 67, he had cash, and he wanted to invest in businesses. He bought a cancer research company, but waiting for results drove him crazy. There had to be another problem he and his employees could tackle simultaneously. But what? Then he had an epiphany.

“I was at a party at a guy’s house, and he has a couple of dogs, and on the way in my wife steps in some dog shit,” Boyd recalls. “We’re drinking beers, and it becomes a joke. Then someone says, ‘Well, we are doing DNA work, and I’d certainly like to find out who is responsible for doing that.’ And I said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea!’ So, I asked a few of them to look into the topic to find out how big of a problem it was.”

Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Jin Lee/Bloomberg

It was a big problem. A very big problem, it turns out.

But it’s also a solvable one thanks to Poo Prints, the business Boyd founded—it actually is a division of BioPet Laboratories, Boyd’s animal genomics company—that uses DNA testing to get people to pick up after their canine friends. How? The company designs kits that it ships to customers internationally and across the U.S.—it’s now in all 50 states—that enable it to track and identify negligent owners by harnessing the power of science.

The swabs contained in its kits simply need to be rubbed on the inside cheek of each dog residing in a housing complex, apartment building, or even a city. (Poo Prints is increasingly signing up entire municipalities as customers.) The samples are then mailed back to the Poo Prints laboratory in Tennessee, where the DNA is extracted. Poo Prints enters that information into a database that dog owners and its clients can access anywhere in the world.

But that’s only the first part of the Poo Prints equation. Whoever oversees the local Poo Prints program—an apartment building manager or a city supervisor, for example—will also have a supply of additional testing equipment. The next time anyone finds or steps in dog poop, the resulting scene will resemble something out of an episode of C.S.I.

“All they have to do is scoop a little bit off the outside of the dog dropping—not the dog complete dropping—and put that into a little solution we provide them with, and ship it to us in a prepaid envelope,” Boyd explains. “Once we analyze that sample, we’ll then reference it to the DNA in our databank to match it with 100% accuracy. The dog can’t get away, and the owner can’t get away, either.”

Poo Prints is so effective, Boyd says, that the majority of its clients see a complete reversal within a few weeks.

But the problem that Poo Prints is solving isn’t just an annoying one—it’s also an environmental one. Indeed, when Boyd first asked his team to look into the topic, they came back with some startling findings. Dog waste contains dangerous pathogens, for starters. It can also be picked up by storm water runoff and eventually pollute lakes and other bodies of water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

When dog poop decays, moreover, it can release ammonia and promote algae growth, which is harmful to aquatic life and humans alike. The EPA also warns that dog waste often contains roundworms and other parasitic nematodes that can sometimes cause serious health issues in people exposed to them. With more than 78 million dogs generating some 10 million tons of poop a year, the U.S. has a lot of poop to watch out for.

By making owners accountable for their pets, Poo Prints is helping mitigate all these   problems in a cost-effective manner. Word-of-mouth has spread fast, with sales doubling every 12 months, says Boyd, who adds all states are pretty much equal when it comes to not picking up dog poop. “About 40% of people don’t pick up after their dogs,” he points out.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

“We’ve gone from only working with apartment complexes—we add a new one every hour and have about 1,500 total—to cities and countries. We just picked up a city in England that has 38,000 dogs, and we have cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that are getting ready to come onboard. England is really going after owners who don’t pick up after their dogs, so that’s a huge opportunity for us. There are 9 million dogs there—that’s a $300 million market for us.”

Even at 77, Boyd is as energetic and enthusiastic as entrepreneurs in their 20s. Though his focus is now on dog poop—he’s owned more than a dozen businesses over the course of his career—Boyd hasn’t really altered his approach to owning and running a company. “Regardless of the business, all business is the same,” he stresses.

“You hire great people, you look for great ideas, and you work with people who are creative. You write a check, you sell a product, you make payroll, and you make a profit. Nothing changes in business. Something I’ve taken from the old school, though, is that we emphasize customer service. We don’t hide from talking to our customers.”

Even if that customer is angry about dog poop.