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Social media isn't just for people anymore. Imagine if you could watch, talk to and even feed your pets through a Skype-like videophone.
That's what Minneapolis-based start-up Anser Innovation LLC aims to do with its PetChatz technology. The "pet phone" allows people to interact with their pet from a computer, laptop or mobile device "anytime, anywhere."
"Our research shows that pet owners don't like leaving their pets home alone," said Lisa Lavin, the co-founder and CEO of Anser Innovation. "Our goal with PetChatz is to create peace of mind."
The device is designed mainly for dogs, but can work for cats too, Lavin said. Roughly the size of an iPad -- but much thicker than one -- it is plugged into the wall and comes equipped with a webcam, speaker, microphone and scent and treat dispensers.
To use it, pet owners open a Web application on their computer or mobile device, which allows them to connect to PetChatz. Once connected, owners can secretly watch their dogs in "spy mode," or they can press a call button to signal the dogs to the device, where they can then talk to, watch and feed them.
The idea for PetChatz began in California when veteran medical device inventor Mark Kroll was videoconferencing with his daughter, Mollie, who was in Arizona. Kroll, a former chief technology officer for St. Jude Medical who holds hundreds of patents, noticed that Simba, the family's yellow Labrador, started barking and wagging her tail at the computer screen when she heard Mollie's voice.
That was the "aha!'' moment.
"Simba was in another room of my house, but when she heard Mollie, she came sprinting. I realized she recognized the voice of her human sister," Kroll said. "So I came up with this idea of pet-human communication. If the dog wants to hear the voice, and humans want to see the dogs, then we're on to something here."
When Kroll told Lavin about the idea, she and Kroll's son, Brady, founded Anser Innovation in 2011. PetChatz is their first product.
"I'm not aware of anything else on the market like PetChatz," Mark Kroll said. "There are parts out there that are similar, like with Skype, but there's nothing that dispenses treats or scents like this." PetChatz has two patents already and is awaiting approval for one more.
Dr. Margaret Duxbury, an assistant clinical professor who specializes in animal behavior at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, said there are still some unanswered questions about the device.
"This product introduces the potential for interaction between the dog and the technology," said Duxbury, who is not associated with Anser Innovation. "It will certainly be disappointing if the dogs don't respond at all [to PetChatz]. Perhaps they will respond to the voice but not recognize that the picture is of their owner. Does that even matter if they respond to the voice?''
Based on recent tests, the company claims to have been able to measure animal responses to the device. Animals were most compelled by the voice, smell and treat-dispensing capabilities of the product, Lavin said. Whether they respond to an image, however, is still uncertain.
There's also a safety question. If dogs try to chew up the device, that could cause injury, Duxbury said.
One challenge is training dogs to interact appropriately with PetChatz. The company has designed a training protocol, which will be tested in June at the U, Lavin said.
The company's primary target is the retail pet market, a fast-growing industry fueled largely by "pet parents" who view their animals as core members of the family. Pet spending has more than doubled in the last decade and topped an estimated $50 billion in 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association.
"I'm a pet parent," said Lavin, a former veterinary technician and the owner of two standard poodles, Hattie and Sam. "Last year I spent $11,200 on vet bills and spend $80 a month on dog food -- and that's just for one bag."
Glenn Johnson, a portfolio manager at Mairs and Power Inc., agreed that consumers are spending more on their pets. But while there's a lot of growth in the industry, products like PetChatz still need to approach the market with care, he said.
"Most new products don't make it. There's a lot of variables that you have to consider, like price points, or if the product works," he said. "But, given the high growth in pet retail, I think it's very possible for [PetChatz] to succeed."
Anser Innovation's goal is to sell PetChatz in pet retail stores. Other potential markets include pet boarding facilities and online sales. The company plans to begin manufacturing in the spring and will launch PetChatz in the fall.
The product's price has yet to be determined, but Lavin said research indicates that people are willing to pay between $200 and $300.
The company aims to generate revenue from sales of the device itself as well as from the scent and treat packs that will come with it. They have a partnership with KLN Family Brands, whose NutriSource brand will provide PetChatz treats. Scent packs are still in planning.
Sunny Thao is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.