Often the simplest ideas are the most successful: Velcro, coffee pods, paperclips and iPods are all delightfully straightforward solutions to everyday issues.

Absurd concepts that capture the public’s imagination sometimes get an intense 15 minutes – or longer – of wacky fame: the Rubik’s Cube, Snuggies, magnetic poetry, lava lamps, pet rocks and yoyos do the rounds every 10 years or so. 

Australian entrepreneur Tobi Skovron and his wife Simone followed the pattern of many motivated inventors with a problem to solve. They sketched, prototyped in cardboard, then made 10 samples of their fledgling product in plastic from a mocked-up, sacrificial timber mould and took their invention to the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s New Inventors television show. When Simone Skovron placed a square of lurid green plastic grass bedded into what appeared to be a black plastic shower tray on the studio floor, the three-judge panel was flummoxed. When a puppy proceeded, on Skovron’s cue, to urinate on the said grass, the audience went wild.

 

Skovron had a very basic problem to solve. She simply wanted “a patch of backyard on our balcony” where the family puppies could take care of business within the boundaries of the apartment. As a veterinary nurse, Skovron knew that dogs recognise their toilet areas by surface – and that a faux grass surface would be the most successful in terms of convincing her dogs to choose the same, owner-approved area every time as their synthetic toilet plot. Tobi Skovron was assigned the task of creating a subsurface that would deal with urine in the most hands-off way possible, while minimising odour, mess and chemicals. In his first light bulb moment he decided to take a long hard look at the George Foreman Grill.

Invented by Michael Boehm and promoted by boxing champion George Foreman, the barbeque grill was designed to minimise direct contact between the grill surface and the food being cooked, so that fat from the food could be “knocked out” and drained away. The drained fat is collected in a removable drip tray, and this grill system has spawned its own genre of drip- catching portable grillers.

Boehm’s concept, the Skovrons realised, was perfectly suited to their concept. The design would allow urine to be quickly moved away from the artificial turf surface and be collected in a hidden receptacle. The fledgling Pup-Pee Solutions Pty Ltd moved quickly to prototype their ‘backyard in a box’, using a ‘grill’ pattern and collection design that they have since patented. With a thorough understanding of a pet owners’ distaste for handling pet waste, the Skovrons then borrowed from the disposal nappy industry the concept of using a pouch containing super absorbent polymers (SAP) in the collection vessel.

SAP is extremely hydrophilic and can hold more than 100 times its weight in water – or urine. It is biodegradable, and is readily processed by wastewater treatment facilities. The Wee Sponge developed for the Pet Loo sits in a biodegradable corn-starch-based Pee Pod that lines the collection vessel of the Pet Loo. And that combination of snappily monikered components is the genius of the Pet Loo design.

The Skovrons plan to “own” pet waste management with the Pet Loo and its spin-offs. They describe the Pet Loo as the “printer” of their pet waste system. The Pet Loo infrastructure plastics are designed to last 10 to 15 years, but it’s the disposable elements – the Pet Pods, Wee Sponges and the non-chemical cleaning products, that give the company plenty of high turnover and repeat business. The snappy names and smart, simple step systems help too.

Consider the training process that uses a self-described “urine in a bottle” spray called Skip To My Loo to attract puppies to the unit. Or a cleaning regime governed by Whiff Off and Wee Care non-chemical sprays. The use of playful language allows the company and customers to navigate the delicate topic of waste more comfortably, and the usefulness of the products and the effective communication of the processes behind them has seen Pup-Pee Solutions expand its presence to more than 85 countries.

The Skovrons are now based in Los Angeles, overseeing the pet waste management segment of a pet industry worth more than $10 billion a year, which services over 78 million dogs. Pup-Pee Solutions employs a full-time biochemist and maintains its own research and development team at the company headquarters in Victoria. The company has 19 product offerings, some linked to the Pet Loo concept and others developed as a response to market demand. Scoop the Poop, for example, is a new poo picker-upper patented by the company to avoid any human contact with the waste collection bag. 

The only changes the Skovrons have made to their original production Pet Loo are associated with optimising the dimensions for shipping, and standardising the catchment jugs for the two sizes of Pet Loos so that the disposable products are a universal fit. Most recently, the company has turned its innovative eye to the 86 million cats of America (and the 2.7 million domestic cats of Australia) with its Fresh Air Litter, which they promise is another true “game changer”.

Again drawing on customer feedback and personal experience, the Skovrons have tackled the issues of conventional kitty litter: hard-to-clean clumps, smell, the use of silica dust and the rising concerns around the world that some kitty litters are polluting and harming wildlife in areas downstream of waste release points.

Using the naturally occurring mineral zeolite, known for its ability to ‘sieve’ ammonia from urine, along with a proprietary “secret herbs and spices” blend, the Fresh Air product is another patented system that combines an “odour removing pad” with the litter itself to convert pungent cat urine into nitrogen and water – which then evaporates. Even non-cat owners would see the sense in that!

Screenwriter Nora Ephron once wrote: “You enter into a certain amount of madness when you marry a person with pets”. You could also become an unintentional player in a pet industry worth $4.6 billion in Australia and a whopping $52 billion in the US. Pup-Pee Solutions grew sales by 56 per cent in 2011 and is a paid regular in Sky Mall – one sign of ‘making it’ mainstream in the US. A serendipitous occasion, then, for the Skovrons, the day that Tobi Skovron moved himself and his two dogs into Simone’s small, grassless apartment.

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