Spotlight on Startups: treat dogs from afar with PetBot

Sub-title: 
Computer science student enterprise takes to Kickstarter
Author: 
Brianna Goldberg

This is not a story about someone who set out to make a fortune. It’s about a man and his dog — and a robot.

“I was worried about my dog, Atos,” says Misko Dzamba, a U of T master’s student in computer science. “I would leave the house every morning in a rush and I wasn’t sure where he is in the house or how he’s doing, so I started off with a simple webcam.”

But Atos wouldn’t wander past the webcam often enough to set Dzamba’s mind at ease. From there, his drive to keep in touch with the fluffy black Eurasier combined with his computer science know-how — and his dog’s love of treats — to result in the PetBot: a small 3D-printed robot that dispenses biscuits with the tap of a button on a mobile phone or any other wifi-connected device. (Visit the PetBot Kickstarter page)

“You can have it on your desk with a little window, you can see the dog there, you can see what they’re doing in the day. It really makes you feel great.” (Give a live dog a treat with the PetBot demo)

Alongside the many incubators and startup supports offered at the University of Toronto, sometimes great ideas come together in a more casual way. Dzamba’s company, co-founded with U of T computer science undergraduate Chris Semoff and a small crew of others, is one such organically-created startup.

This Spotlight on Startups series profiles the hundreds of companies spun out of from research and connections sparking every day at the University of Toronto.

U of T hosts more than 50 enterprise-fostering courses, programs, labs, clubs, contests and speaker series across its faculties, departments and campuses — and then there are all the innovations developing in informal settings. U of T ranks No. 1 in North America for number of startups launched. And its roster of spin-off companies driving innovation in Toronto and around the world continues to grow.

Dzamba says his initial idea was to open two-way audio and video between himself and Atos, but the dog wouldn’t respond to his voice through the computer. That’s when he turned to a more Pavlovian model. “If you play a sound and drop a treat, the dog will learn it in 20 minutes," he said.

Now a wide variety of sounds and noises are offered to beckon the homebound beasts, who can be rewarded with any type treat the owner chooses. “If you want to give them strips of bacon, so long as they’re a similar size to each other, we’ll just 3D print you a cartridge for that treat specifically."

Dzamba is keen to mention that right now anyone can try the PetBot out for themselves. (Try the free live demo)

The demo is meant to encourage further investments to their Kickstarter campaign, still shy of its $20,000 investment goal. Upon reaching that target, PetBot’s first 100 units will be shipped out in time for Christmas, and from there, Dzamba says plans are to engage consultants to help drive down the price to around $100.

“If we reach that goal, then that would be something amazing. It would be really accessible to people,” he said, adding that even a one dollar investment for PetBot on Kickstarter "goes a long way." Though the venture may not be working to achieve world peace, it is a step towards improving the lives of animals and their owners.

“Given that you’re already not there for a large part of the day, what can we do to improve that time for your pet?” asks Dzamba.

It’s these kinds of questions that encouraged him to turn Petbot from a simple way to remotely play with Atos into a larger startup. He says inspiration from entrepreneurial alumni from U of T computer science, including those who founded TheRedPin and GridCentric, led to PetBot’s commercialization. 

But, despite PetBot being featured in The Guardian, Global News and beyond, it's still all about one dog and one computer science student and one robot.

“He’s always with me when I’m up late working on the PetBot,” said Dzamba, of Atos (at left, with a prototype). “He just lays down and sleeps on my foot or beside me, and he’s always testing the Petbot. I love my dog.”

Brianna Goldberg is a writer for U of T News.

Visit the University of Toronto entrepreneurship site to learn more about U of T's enterprise-fostering courses, labs, programs and more.