Anyone seeing Synette Tom walking her apricot Labradoodle around West Menlo Park might think the dog’s name is Gibi. At least that’s what the dog’s seriously souped-up collar says. In fact, the scruffy pup’s name is Kale (Hawaiian for “Charlie”), and Gibi is Synette’s GPS pet locating device that’s currently drawing the attention of the world’s largest retailer.
We’re talking Walmart. “It’s exciting and kind of surreal,” admits Synette.
Back in July, Walmart solicited “Get on the Shelf” contest entries from inventors and small business owners eager to make their products available to its millions of customers. Selected from a pool of thousands, Gibi is now one of 20 finalists in the Walmart contest.
This week, the top four products in the Great Gadgets category face off in an online vote with the winner vying for the contest grand prize. At stake: pre-orders from Walmart.com and vital marketing support — the stuff of dreams for a fledgling start-up.
Before Synette found herself in the spotlight of a national contest and ABC World News coverage, she was a transplanted Hawaii native in Menlo Park, working feverishly to get her new business off the ground. “I was in the satellite industry for quite some time and wanted to do something new,” she said. “All my life I’ve wanted to start my own company.”
As an electrical engineer, Synette designed electronics for communications satellites, which eventually led to system design and business development. Back in 2005, she was recruited to the Bay Area by Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto. While her realtor encouraged her to “get a condo in downtown Palo Alto,” Synette checked out a listing in Menlo Park and immediately thought, “this feels like home.” When she left Space Systems/Loral in 2009, her Menlo Park home became her startup home base.
Synette says her transition from satellite technology to dog tracking devices was a natural one. “Growing up on a small farm on the windward side of Oahu, we had a lot of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, geese, chicken, ducks, you name it,” Synette said. She brainstormed the idea of a tracking device for family pets with her sister (and Gibi co-founder). “She said, ‘With your background, you know you can do it,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
Watching her former Space Systems/Loral boss suffer through the trauma of a missing pet further cemented the idea. “He and his wife were driving up and down for seven days looking for their dog. He wasn’t going to work,” she said. “They eventually found the dog in a neighbor’s garage. He could have gone to our app, boom ‘where’s Fido?’ and instantly known he was at the neighbor’s house versus seven days of worry.”
As Synette points out, one in three pets go missing in their lifetime, and four million are euthanized every year because their owners can’t be identified. Menlo Park is no exception to the lost pet phenomenon, as witnessed by the steady stream of postings for help on Nextdoor.com.
“Dogs are super, super smart, and there are so many ways they can get loose,” Synette said, confessing that even Kale successfully executed a great escape. “It’s just really scary. We thought our gate was locked tight, but he kept banging on it until it got open.”
While competitive pet-tracking technologies exist, Synette says Gibi is sleeker, technically superior and fits any collar. “People can go, ‘Where’s my dog?’ and just press the button on their app on their smart phone or computer and instantly they know where their dog is within 10 foot accuracy.”
Gibi (pronounce like Andy Gibb-y) is at the alpha prototype stage, but thanks to Blue Startups, a Hawaii-based venture accelerator, along with additional investors and friends and family funding, Synette has raised enough money to target mass production by next April.
As for the Walmart contest, it’s now up to America’s vote. If Gibi fans cast enough online ballots October 14-17, Synette’s pet-tracking technology will “get on the shelf.” Beyond that? “We have a great product to help people find their pets. We know there’s a market out there, and we plan to nail it,” said Synette.
Photos by Irene Searles