Strange Success

This company brings in $7 million a year testing dog poop DNA to catch non-scoopers

The CSI of dog poop makes nearly $7 million a year
The CSI of dog poop makes nearly $7 million a year

Tom Boyd is 80 years old. He loves to play golf. He loves to make money.

"I've had 17 businesses, and I never had one that didn't make money."

His latest money-making endeavor tests dog poop left unscooped in public spaces. Using DNA, Boyd hunts down the dog's owner. Don't laugh. His detective work will bring in up to $7 million in revenues this year.

"Sometime in the next five years it's going to be $120 million," he says, confidently. 

Boyd proves that entrepreneurs have a nose for profits, and they let that nose lead them wherever the profits are, no matter how smelly the destination. He's spent a lifetime starting and selling businesses. His entrepreneurial streak began as a U.S. Army soldier making $100 a month in Germany. He started making an extra $1,000 a month buying everything from cigarettes to potato chips on base and reselling them to German stores at a huge markup.

"I think you become an entrepreneur simply because you want to make money," he says.

Thirteen years ago Boyd sold his last company and retired. "I made it a week, and I told my wife, 'I can't do this.'" He returned home to Knoxville, Tennessee, "and sort of passed the word around that I'd buy anything that walked and talked, if it was a business." Soon, a woman approached him about her medical research enterprise. "I said, 'I'll buy your company.'"

The company Boyd bought was developing a blood test to predict early stage colon cancer. However, it presented an unacceptable problem. "In a research company, all you do is spend money," he says, "and I had never been at a company that didn't make money." So he started looking for opportunities to use the company's technology, including a DNA testing lab, to create a revenue stream on the side.

He looked beyond humans to pets.

Boyd created Biopet in 2008, a company which could confirm a dog's parentage using DNA, and also confirm its breed. The first product was no problem, but confirming a dog's breed was problematic. The DNA test did not look at enough markers to be 100 percent accurate.

CSI: dog doo

Then one day Chesleigh Fields, the lab's 35-year-old chief scientist with a master's degree in forensic DNA and serology, had an idea: Why not use DNA to figure out which dogs (and dog owners) left pet poop unscooped? She could use her background in forensics to bring awareness to a problem recognized globally as a health hazard. "You take an unknown, and you match it to a known," she says. Dog feces attract rats. She could create the CSI of dog doo!

Boyd liked the idea and told his team to research the potential market. They discovered 40 percent of dog owners do not pick up after their pets. "For several years it's been ranked as the number one problem the [property] manager has," says Boyd. "If you live in a high rise in New York, you've got 200 dogs. Forty percent don't pick up," says Boyd. "That's 80 dogs. They go twice a day. That's 160 [poops]."

He did the math in a country of 70 million dogs and decided, "We have a big, big market here, now let's go all out for it." They would call their product PooPrints, a name Boyd's friend came up with while drinking beers on his back porch.

Tom Boyd estimates he spent a couple of million dollars getting PooPrints up and running, and he started landing sales at apartment and condo complexes in 2011. First year revenues were only about $160,000. "I gave them a mandate in the early days that they had to get me one account in 30 states, and I was willing to lose $1 million to do that," says Boyd. The company actually landed deals in 48 states the first year.

The PooPrints system is now in over 3,000 complexes.

How it works and what it costs

PooPrints' business model works like this. If you live in a building where the program has been established, participation is usually mandatory as part of a lease or condo agreement. A dog owner swabs the inside of his or her pet's cheek and mails the sample in to Biopet, where a DNA sample is taken and entered into the company's World Pet Registry for $40.

If a property manager finds unwanted poop on the ground, the manager uses a special kit to take a sample, put it in a solution and mail it to Biopet to be tested against the registry. That costs another $70, money that can be recouped if a guilty dog is found and the owner fined. "Once that dog goes in [the registry], he can be recognized anywhere in the world," says Boyd. "So if that particular dog gets on a plane, and then goes to London, England, and they pick up his dog waste, we can instantly tell you where the dog is and tell you that's the dog. He can never get away."

But is all this necessary to identify a canine culprit? Why not use security cameras to catch a dog in the act? "Prove it," says Boyd. "You go to court...they'll bring out ten dogs that look the same way." DNA doesn't lie.

An interesting thing happens after pets are registered in the PooPrints DNA system. Violations plummet. People pick up after their dogs. "We've had reports of a 95 percent drop," says Chesleigh Fields. She admits, though, there was some push back at first. "It sounded like a 'Big Brother' product, instead of a product aimed to help increase pet acceptance into places." It took time to convince property owners — and tenants — that discarded dog feces is a health hazard and a system to reduce it actually makes properties more accepting of pets. "They come to us now without us having to cold call and knock on doors."

Early lessons

Creating the business, however, came with more than a few piles of poo. Early on, Fields learned from mistakes in testing and transportation. She says her first mailed poop sample "was horribly moldy." It took years to find the right solution for transporting specimens properly to Tennessee. "That was the longest part of our research."

Then there was the unpleasant surprise during research and development when Fields tried to use a cappuccino frothier to spin off cells from feces for testing. "It ended up in an eruption of the poo, it was in the hair, it was not good."

But nearly eight years in, more than 300,000 dogs are in the World Pet Registry. Biopet receives an estimated 7,000 swab samples and 2,000 poop samples monthly. Boyd's team is negotiating with cities like Chicago to make the program a mandatory part of pet licensing, so that anyone who doesn't pick up after a dog in public can be found and fined. (That's part of his plan to reach $120 million in revenue within five years.) He is pushing to get the program established in England, where he says there are 9 million dogs. "That has a value of $365 million, so that's how big I think it is."

Tom Boyd envisions a day when every dog in America (and beyond) is in the PooPrints system. He will be wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. But does he find it funny that he's making millions off dog poop? "I think it's funny nobody came up with the idea before."

More from Strange Success: How this dad's hairy back made him a millionaire

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