“People were not used to spending $100 for a dog toy. … We broke the ice.” — Denny Hamill
BY JEREMY LOSAW
Grant Hamill figured out a way to finish his homework while starting something even more important. When the high-schooler was trying to work on his studies at his kitchen table in Austin, Texas, several years ago, his pet poodle, Prancer, kept dropping a ball at his feet to play fetch. Soon Grant’s thoughts wandered from his books to how he could keep his dog active and occupied.
“What if we made something that could throw the ball for Prancer so I can finish my homework?” he remembers asking. His grandfather, Denny Hamill, began searching to see whether there was any such device on the market.
“We looked on the Internet for a solution,” he recalled. “There were a couple of prototypes that were big and funny looking … but no one had really developed a product. So we decided to try to build one.”
The result was the iFetch, an automated fetching machine that a dog can use by itself. It’s battery powered and has an opening at the top where the dog drops a specially designed tennis ball. The ball is guided down a chute, and spinning wheels launch the ball out of an opening at the bottom. The dog can fetch the ball and return to the iFetch indefinitely without the need for a human to throw the ball.
Building the iFetch was an ongoing homework assignment for both grandfather and grandson, the latter currently finishing his degree at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Grant had a set of toy cars that had an accelerator mechanism to speed up the cars and shoot them around a track. They disassembled the mechanism, spaced the drive wheels further apart, and mounted them at an angle to shoot a tennis ball into the air. They added a hopper to feed balls to the accelerator, and they had their first prototype. Because Prancer was the original inspiration for the device, they let him have the first test. He loved it, and the team continued developing the idea.
Denny had experience developing products from 30-plus years at 3M, accumulating a portfolio of patents along the way. Shortly after creating their first prototype, he went to his patent attorney to start the application. They did a provisional filing to start and later converted it to a full-utility patent that was recently issued. They have also filed design patents to cover the unique orbital look of the product, as well as filing patents in Europe and Asia to protect the idea worldwide. Denny feels that the patents have helped in the product’s success but admits that’s hard to measure.
Despite the elder Hamill’s industry experience, the team still needed help to get the product designed. Denny had knowledge of the Austin-area design because he served as a mentor for small businesses and startups in the area, and it wasn’t long before he hired a design firm to create an iconic shape for the product. The design team took the idea as far as it could before referring the iFetch team to an engineering group in the area that could help with the design for manufacture. After a few months of design work, prototypes were made out of 3D printed parts and tested with dogs to dial in the design and ensure it was reliable and cost effective to manufacture.
After all of the design work, they had a great product—but there were still concerns about marketability. Due to the size of the device and the internal components, the price of the iFetch was going to have to surpass $100. Most dog toys are inexpensive, and there was not a comparably priced product in the space as a reference point to be confident that the market would accept a more premium product.
“People were not used to spending $100 for a dog toy. … We broke the ice,” Denny said. “The pet industry has changed. Customers are changing. They are treating their dogs more like children.” Launched on Kickstarter in 2013, iFetch was successfully funded with $88,221 and 1,271 backers.
The Kickstarter campaign gave the iFetch team the validity in the marketplace to kick off the manufacturing. The engineering group helped the iFetch team find a factory. Due to the size of the injection-molded parts and the electronics inside the unit, the most cost-effective option was to have it made overseas. After the normal rounds of sampling and slight post-tooling tweaks, there have been no major issues with the production.
The iFetch has been increasing sales and garnering industry awards, including Best New Product and Best in Show at the 2013 SuperZoo trade show. The initial 5,000 units that were produced were soon sold out.
Growing the Market
After feedback from users, it became clear that the original iFetch was not ideal for large dogs. Denny went back to his design and engineering firms and created a new product called the iFetch Too. The larger unit, which uses bigger tennis balls and is taller for bigger dogs, was launched on Kickstarter in 2015 and raised $117,192.
“It’s everything dogs love about the original iFetch,” Grant said, “but in a bigger package with bigger balls for bigger dogs.”
This was followed by a third product, the iFetch Frenzy—a gravity-driven auto fetcher that releases balls out of one of three slots in the bottom of the unit.
The original iFetch, for small to mid-size dogs, is available for $115; Fetch Too sells for $199. The iFetch Frenzy lists for $69.95.
Meanwhile, more family members are involved in the success of iFetch products. Grant, who experienced the success of an invention along with a firsthand education in product development, has worked on the brand during summers between semesters at college. His mom, Debbie, is now a full-time member of the team, so they get to spend a lot of time together working on the product and going to shows. The team is working on some new and innovative dog products to expand their product line in coming years.