Jackie Simoni is a computer geek turned inventor of a special light to make dogs safer after dark. Now, she's also a government contractor.
Simoni invented PupLight six years ago. She came up with the idea of a light that attaches to a collar while fumbling with a leash, flashlight, poop bags and animal repellant during a walk with her 90-pound, very social golden retriever.
It took 15 prototypes, but the lights are now sold at Petco, her biggest customer, Cabela's outfitters and on Amazon.com. "I thought I would sell a million a year," she said.
So far, the number is closer to 150,000 at $19.95 each. But Simoni's luck could be changing.
The Secret Service has been using the lights for a couple of years. A few weeks ago, she got a five-year, $125,000 contract with the General Services Administration so she can sell to more than 1,000 other government departments, said Rita Haake, program manager of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of DuPage in Illinois.
"The process that Jackie had to go through is thorough and substantial. The federal government evaluates the product offering and then negotiates for best pricing from the company," said Haake, who helped Simoni with her GSA application.
All Simoni has to do now is contact the departments that use dogs and sell them on PupLight, then they can order the lights through the GSA.
Hot prospects include: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with its canine search and rescue corps; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for airport detection and narcotics canines; and Customs and Border Patrol for dogs that search for narcotics or find themselves in dark border tunnels, Haake said.
PupLight was recently one of six products — out of 1,300 entries — chosen by the Edison Nation product search competition. Edison Nation is running television infomercials through October to determine if it will sponsor the light in a national direct sales ad campaign.
That could mean sales in the millions and licensing royalties, said Simoni, who lives in suburban Chicago.
Four years ago, Robert Eschenberg, 43, an auto repair technician from Ventura, Calif., and his wife, Kim, adopted Maggie, a 10-month-old Lab mix who had been abused. Every once in a while, she would freeze in fear.
On a walk one night, a neighbor complained that she couldn't see Maggie, even though Eschenberg was carrying a flashlight. At a dog show, the neighbor found a PupLight and bought it for the dog.
"Maggie was a little leery of it at first, but when it got dark and I reached down to turn it on, something changed in her. Her chest popped out and she started to strut. She was proud. Maggie now had a job and that gave her confidence," Eschenberg said.
They would meet people on their walks and the people would smile and ask about the light. "It helped in socializing her," he said.
The Eschenbergs have since adopted a friend for Maggie, a 7-month-old Dalmatian mix. And the first thing they did was order a PupLight. "Our girls are referred to as the dogs with headlights," Eschenberg said.
PupLight was the highest rated dog light product tested by Whole Dog Journal in January 2008. "Every dog owner who helped us test this product asked if they could keep it after our trial was completed. There really isn't any better testament to a product's ease of use and usefulness," the magazine wrote.
PupLight got a four-paw rating, meaning it was "as good as it gets; product is fully approved by WDJ."
The light did more than make dogs safer. It made Simoni smarter, she said. Having learned all her lessons, and noting how many times she borrowed the lights from her dog, Tangent, and her 3-year-old golden retriever Sargent, she has come up with a light for humans. It's called NekLight.
Simoni, 60, knew nothing about engineering, packaging, marketing, patenting, shipping, showing and all the rest of the tedious, time-consuming details that inventing requires. She could find nothing like her light on the market, so started looking for ways to make her own. Instead of big bulky headlamps, she found she could use LED lights.
In the first prototypes, Tangent's nose blocked the light, his fur blocked the light and the batteries didn't last long enough.
She went through an encyclopedia of 250 dogs and measured the tilt of their heads. "Poodles hold their heads almost straight up and beagles hold their heads almost straight down," she said. She figured out a way to adjust the tilt.
Tangent is tall but her neighbor had a miniature dachshund and the light hit the ground. She devised a way to adjust it.
She kept dropping the light off her kitchen counter until she came up with a polycarbonate case and a collar of reinforced nylon. Then she found an engineer.
Like Eschenberg, Deb Seyfer of St. Paul, Minn., liked her PupLight so much, she sent Simoni a note. Butch, her 8-year-old Lhasa apso, is small so it was hard to see him in the dark and it is dark a lot in Minnesota, she said. The PupLight took care of that, she said.
She got hers four years ago at a pet expo in Minneapolis and she has only had to change batteries once.
"And he's not encumbered by it at all," said Seyfer, fellowship coordinator at the University of Minnesota. "It's lightweight, comfortable and seems quite indestructible. He is very low to the ground and it's been dropped a few times by me and it's held its own."