Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our August/September issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
The most useful inventions are often born of simple needs and mundane tasks. Think of the everyday chores that inspired inventions like the electric can opener, the automated garage door, and the wheelbarrow. In the case of the iFetch, the automatic ball-launching phenomenon, teenager Grant Hamill was trying to concentrate on his homework while the family’s Toy Poodle was pestering him to play ball.
During a college break, Grant’s older sister, Lee, returned to the Hamills’ Austin, Texas, home for a visit. While there, she taught the family’s six-pound Toy Poodle, Prancer, to fetch. It was great fun for Prancer, but when Lee returned to school, she left behind a fetch-obsessed dog. Soon after, Grant was sitting at the kitchen table trying to do some homework, and Prancer kept dropping the ball at his feet. Grant mused out loud, “What if we made something that could throw the ball for Prancer so I could finish my homework?”
In most cases, a comment like that would have been momentarily therapeutic and then forgotten. But in Grant’s case, his offhand musing was heard by his grandfather, Denny Hamill, a retired physicist who had worked 30 years for a multinational products manufacturer. He also has 19 patents to his name. Grant’s comment touched on something many dog owners have felt: a sense that their dogs are sometimes neglected when humans are busy with jobs, school, and other responsibilities. “We thought Grant’s comment was funny at first and then thought, ‘Why not? We could do that,’” Denny said.
Grant and Denny rolled up their sleeves and began a three-year process to develop a ball-launching prototype, create a pleasing indoor design, and then test, patent, and manufacture their idea. First, they set about making a prototype from an old Hot Wheels accelerator toy, which they pulled apart and remade into a ball launcher, which Prancer was delighted with. Once the mechanics were worked out, the budding project went through several rounds of rigorous product design and indoor testing. The Hamills then began patenting the unique dog exercise element and attractive design.
The result is a cute, igloo-shaped contraption that is a little bit larger than a toaster, and it can keep your dog endlessly entertained by launching a ball 10, 20, or 30 feet, depending on the setting. The fun begins when the dog drops the ball in the funnel and the iFetch begins to whirr, which creates anticipation and excitement. Within seconds, the ball is launched, the dog fetches the ball, and brings it back to the machine to start the process over again. Training your dog to use the iFetch is relatively easy, and the iFetch website offers training videos.
By the summer of 2013, the prototype was ready for Kickstarter, where the iFetch first captured the imagination of dog owners (like us!) and validated the Hamills’ — and Prancer’s — business idea. In 30 days, the Hamill’s iFetch idea received $88,221 in pledges, more than four times the $20,000 goal they had set. The Kickstarter success gave the Hamills the confidence to move on to the next, and most expensive, phase: manufacturing. “As we progressed, we felt more and more confident, and the Kickstarter success was the validation that gave us the confidence to make the next big investments in manufacturing,” Denny said. “The whacky idea became a reality.”
After overcoming a few scheduling setbacks, the product was available in 2014, and it quickly captured the attention of the media in the United States, Canada, and Europe. And as soon as the iFetch was available, the Hamills began collecting awards for its design, function, and innovation. It won second best in the new products category at the 2014 Global Pet Expo and took Best in Show at the 2013 SuperZoo exhibition.
Some have criticized the iFetch as a technological device that allows humans to spend less meaningful time with their dogs. But the vast majority of iFetch users respond positively, many saying their dogs now have more opportunity for exercise and entertainment during downtimes when they are busy with work and other responsibilities. And with the growing number of seniors who are becoming dog owners, the iFetch can help dogs get fully exercised if their owners struggle with mobility issues. (Dogster reviewed the iFetch.)
Grant is now a busy college student studying economics, but that hasn’t stopped him from being involved in the next evolution of the family business.
The Hamills are now preparing to manufacture the larger iFetch Too, which is designed mostly for the outdoors. The prototype has already far exceeded expectations on Kickstarter, and the Hamills plan to have it on the market next year. “It’s everything dogs love about the original iFetch,” Grant said, “but in a bigger package with bigger balls for bigger dogs.”
Read more on dogs and tech:
About the author: John Geluardi has worked as a journalist for 15 years, mostly as a political reporter. He has also written feature-length stories on culture, crime, and presidential campaigns and has won numerous first-place awards. His book, Cannabiz: The Explosive Rise of the Medical Marijuana Industry, was published in 2010. A longtime dog owner, John looks forward each day to long walks with his dog, Corso.