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Innovation Economy

A dog's life, online

Kooky? Maybe. But start-up bets it's barking up the right tree with a sort of Facebook for Fido.

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
November 11, 2007

Wanted: Beta-testers for a prototype wearable communications device. Must be active, have outgoing personality, and be willing to sniff new acquaintances in sensitive areas. Heavy droolers need not apply.

The concept behind SNIF Labs Inc. verges on the nutty: The Boston-based start-up is developing intelligent tags for dogs to wear, so that their owners can monitor their daily activity and track the friends they've made at the park. It's social networking for canines, a la Facebook or LinkedIn - and in fact, the company's name is an acronym for "social networking in fur."

Entrepreneurs of every breed need to make a clean break with reality; their job is to imagine a product or service that doesn't yet exist and that fills a need none of us knew we had. Ideas that seem slightly crazy at first - Bluetooth headsets, anyone? - can become commonplace in just a few years. Or they end up as one more crazy concept that didn't fly.

SNIF is the second local start-up to introduce wearable tags for information exchange. Charlestown-based nTag Interactive has raised $14 million to market smart name tags that enable conference-goers to swap contact information, peruse the day's agenda, play ice-breaker games, or respond to a speaker's survey question.

Both companies trace their genealogy to the MIT Media Lab. In 1995, the lab was organizing a party to mark the launch of a research initiative, called Things That Think. The objective was to explore what might happen when computers were embedded into all sorts of objects.

In the month leading up to the launch party, Rick Borovoy and other researchers at the lab created several hundred electronic name tags for guests. Guests answered questions (such as "with whom would you most want to have dinner?") and that information was encoded onto tags. Then, when they walked up to another guest who answered the same way, a green light would be illuminated. Red lights glowed if they'd answered differently.

"We called it finding common ground," says Borovoy. "It's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem when you meet someone new: You have to talk to find your common ground, but it's hard to have a conversation before you know what that common ground is."

The Media Lab is renowned for its cool demos, and Borovoy thought that was all they'd created. But people remembered the tags and started inquiring about whether they might be able to get some for their own meetings. After MasterCard asked insistently, Borovoy and George Eberstadt incorporated nTag as a company, in 2002.

Last month, the Westford company NetScout Systems Inc. deployed the tags at its annual user conference in Miami. Customers such as NetScout pay $80 to $100 per attendee to use the tags.

"Our presenters could survey people in the audience, which helped them to react in real-time to the audience," says Andrea Smith, NetScout's field events manager. It was also helpful to track how many people attended each session - thanks to the tags - and collect feedback, she says, adding that she plans to recommend using the technology again at next year's conference.

NTag raised a first round of venture capital in 2005 and another round of $8.3 million in August. The Boston firm Pilot House Ventures was among its investors. "Rick and George had been doing this for a year-and-a-half before we invested, and they had customer validation and customer traction, unlike a lot of start-ups that don't have real market data," says Pilot House partner Stephen Van Beaver.

So far, SNIF's founders, who operate out of a subterranean space in Boston's Leather District, have raised just over a million dollars from friends, family, and a few angel investors for its tags for dogs.

The SNIF tag is about the size of a matchbox and can be affixed to a metal sleeve that the dog's collar threads through. Inside is an accelerometer - a sensor that tracks movement. The tag can tell when a dog is sleeping, walking, or running. Tags must be within 80 feet of a base station, which looks like a mod-style pepper grinder. The tags report back real-time information on the dog's habits to the base. The base, which is connected to the Internet, then relays the information to the website.

Unlike the global positioning system, the tags don't "talk" to satellites, so you can't tell precisely where your dog is - only that he's inside or outside of the base's range.

The base station doubles as a charger. SNIF chief executive Noah Paessel says the tag and base station should sell for about $199.

Once on the website, a dog owner can see whether Rex is having a nap or chasing the cat around the house. (Another angle is ensuring that the dog walker is actually giving Rex that hour-long constitutional you're paying for.)

And when a tag-wearing dog encounters a playmate who is also sporting a tag, the two tags exchange information, and a light on each tag flashes. Later, the pup's owner can go online and view Rex's friend list - and also see information about his friends' owners. That opens up the possibility of organizing regular play groups or someone to look after Rex the next time you go away for the weekend.

Perhaps the richest possibility, though, is learning more about the attractive single owners of Rex's friends and sending them a note to suggest a walk in the park.

Paessel and his cofounders have been shuttling over to China to supervise the manufacturing of about 150 tags that will be used as part of a beta test in Boston, beginning in mid-December. (Interested dog owners can sign up on the SNIF website.)

Though the company originally hoped to have tags for sale before the end of this year, that date has been pushed to next spring.

Paessel, who doesn't own a dog, says he didn't initially think about the SNIF project, when it began at the Media Lab, as a business. But after some early media coverage, would-be buyers kept asking where they could purchase a tag, and "a guy called from Japan, asking to be our distributor there," he says.

Acknowledging that wireless networking gear for pets is not yet a multi-jillion-dollar industry, Paessel says, "I'd rather be doing this than designing banking systems or weapons systems."

And the tags' ability to track behavior - like that of an elderly relative, for instance - could lead SNIF to other markets.

"VCs will invest in crazy things if there's a defensible, scalable business model there," Borovoy says. "The fact that it sounds a little kooky - a lot of kooky things have done extremely well. Think about the original Sony Walkman: You're going to plug headphones into your ears and walk around with it?"

The entrepreneur's goal is to transform the crazy into the commonplace.

Innovation Economy is a weekly column focusing on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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