'Shark Tank' to feature SwiftPaws, a Melbourne dog lure course startup

2022-04-02 05:52:23 By : Ms. Milanda Cai

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Osa, an energetic black-and-white miniature Australian shepherd, excitedly eyed a pair of white flags tied to 500 feet of nylon line strung across a grassy corner of Riverview Park.

"Ready? Set? Tally-ho!" shouted Meghan Wolfgram, wielding her handheld controller.

The flags darted to life, zipping across the grass at varying speeds and directions via motorized pulley wheels. Osa tore off after the flags, sprinting back and forth in a blur of fur.

Wolfgram is founder and CEO of SwiftPaws, a Melbourne startup that touts its canine-exercise equipment as the world’s first backyard lure coursing machine.

She hopes to grow SwiftPaws into "a health and wellness lifestyle brand for pets" — her company notes that more than half of all American dogs are overweight. 

And she'll get a St. Bernard-sized dose of televised exposure: ABC's "Shark Tank" will feature her making a sales pitch during the April 8 episode, which airs at 8 p.m.

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Piper, her trusty German shorthaired pointer, joined her on the "Shark Tank" stage.

"You're so well-prepared that you know your pitch: That's the part that you have drilled over and over. And you know your numbers. And you're going over all the details of the business," Wolfgram recalled.

"And then after that, you're standing there — and you're like, 'Uh oh, here it comes,' " she said.

"They grill you. They absolutely grill you. They come at you from every direction. And they know their stuff. They know nothing about your business walking in — and I think they knew about more my business than I did when I walked out of the tank," she said.

Wolfgram said she was contacted by a "Shark Tank" producer in August, then flew to Los Angeles and taped her segment in September. She declined to divulge details on what happened during her time in "the tank."

Wolfgram is a Malabar resident who earned a bachelor's degree in economics from DePauw University.

She built her first lure-coursing prototypes on her parents' dining-room table in Palm Bay, and she introduced her first machine in 2011 to a group of dog-agility buffs — in the front pasture of a friend's Malabar horse farm.

That gathering evolved into Lure Course Brevard, a monthly group that exercises dogs at Wickham Park in Melbourne and a field in Cocoa.

SwiftPaws initially sold commercial-grade lure-chase equipment. Wolfgram's first customer was a search-and-rescue team in Rochester, New York, that wanted to cross-train and boost the stamina of its bloodhounds.

Other customers included law enforcement agencies (to train K-9s) and zoos (to exercise cheetahs and other speedy creatures).

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SwiftPaws pivoted in 2018 by raising more than $70,000 via Kickstarter to launch a backyard lure course set for the general public. Labeled the Home edition, the set costs $450 and includes three pulleys with up to 300 feet of line, speeds up to 30 mph, and 10 minutes of rechargeable battery time.

"After years and years and years of literally thousands of people telling me how badly they needed one at home, we went all-in. We actually stopped producing the pro-grade equipment, because the company at that point was so small we could only really focus on one thing at a time," Wolfgram said.

"So we took quite the gamble," she said.

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wolfgram converted a small closet — which had been used to store podcast equipment — into her company's headquarters at Groundswell Startups, a tech incubator on U.S. 1 in Melbourne.

Then in July, SwiftPaws launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to introduce an upgraded Home Plus package, featuring faster speeds and longer battery life. The campaign zoomed beyond its $25,000 goal — raising $130,840 from 351 backers within 30 days.

Home Plus costs $700 and includes five pulleys with up to 750 feet of line, speeds up to 36 mph, and 30 minutes of rechargeable battery time.

Inside Groundswell, the SwiftPaws closet is separated by a wall from the former office of Nohbo, a shampoo-drop startup that secured a "Shark Tank" deal from Mark Cuban in February 2016. Cuban — who owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks — offered $100,000 for a 25% stake of the fledgling company, which was founded by Viera High junior Ben Stern.

Nohbo later outgrew Groundswell and secured $3 million to open a production facility on Robert J. Conlan Boulevard in Palm Bay. 

That office is now occupied by Kalogon Technologies , which designs "smart" wheelchair cushions to treat pressure ulcers, bedsores and wounds. The startup won the $25,000 prize during the "Shark Tank"-inspired Space Coast Pitch Challenge on March 10 at Groundswell.

"I think it's a testament to the maturity of our ecosystem. We're obviously completely stoked for Meghan," said Jarin Eisenberg, Groundswell chief operating officer.

Groundswell will host a SwiftPaws "Shark Tank" viewing party during the episode's April 8 premiere.

SwiftPaws has four full-time employees and opened a small warehouse last fall just north of downtown Melbourne for storage, assembly and packing.

Wolfgram used SwiftPaws equipment to conduct the races during the American Kennel Club’s Fast CAT Invitational in December outside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. ESPN2 broadcast the competition on Christmas during a “AKC Fastest Dogs USA” program.

Competing canines chased a motorized lure during a 100-yard dash. Judges converted each dog's time to mph, then applied a scoring system based on the animal’s height.

Two weeks ago, SwiftPaws set up a lure course during the Charleston Animal Society's Celebrity Paws in the Park fundraising festival in South Carolina. The event starred dog trainer Travis Brorsen, who hosts Animal Planet’s "My Big Fat Pet Makeover."

SwiftPaws will demonstrate lure coursing during Poochella, an April 16 pet festival at Wickham Park in Melbourne. The event will benefit Touch of Grey Rescue, a Melbourne Beach nonprofit that provides senior dogs rehoming, hospice and foster care. 

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1

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