judges examine products onstage during the innovation showdown
Photo courtesy of Petco Foundation

A cloud-based marketing resource for shelters and rescues, technological solutions to help reunite lost pets and owners, and an animal transport program that addresses the root causes of animal overpopulation—all three ideas have a shot at investment, thanks to the Petco Foundation Innovation Showdown during this year’s Animal Care Expo.

Following last year’s inaugural showdown, a panel of investors once again invited animal welfare organizations to pitch their most creative, lifesaving ideas via video. The panel selected two finalists and invited the public to choose a third "wild card" from among a group of runners-up. This year’s standout ideas, which will compete to receive funding, were submitted by HeARTs Speak, a nonprofit that combines art and advocacy to help animals; Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento, California; and St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, which won during the wild card round.

If the competition’s premise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s modeled on popular ABC series Shark Tank, which shows entrepreneurs pitching business ideas to a panel of potential investors. Just like the show, and for the first time this year, the final three hopefuls will present live on stage at Expo in front of seven animal welfare leaders, including Jackson Galaxy, Julie Castle of Best Friends Animal Society, Mary Ippoliti-Smith of Maddie’s Fund and Susanne Kogut of the Petco Foundation.

In this edited Q&A, Kogut offers her thoughts on the showdown—and how a little competition can bring out the best in the animal welfare community.

Why do you think this competition is so important for the animal welfare community?

I think a lot of times people have great ideas, but they don’t have the funding to get them going. For us, doing the Innovation Showdown, we want to make sure that they’re not only great ideas, but they’re ideas that will save more lives. We’re looking for great ideas that are really different, but at the end of the day if it’s not about saving lives, it’s not achieving what our goal is.

It’s a way to bring attention to those great ideas more publicly, and also, it’s fun. It’s a way that we can sit there and look at these new ideas and talk about them and really celebrate the fact that the people that are working in animal welfare organizations are hardworking, really, really smart people. We think it gives them the credit for what they do every day, and we think it gives them the credit for being as creative and as dedicated and as smart as they are.

Were you surprised by some of the entries?

I was actually surprised! Last year was the first year. We had good ideas, but it was the first time that we’ve done this, and the number of really great entries as a percentage of total entries was less.

This year, I think, because people saw the examples from last year, what I was surprised by was the incredible videos that they put together, and it looks like they were having fun while they did it. Even some of the ones that aren’t the finalists, it looked like people were having a great time. They were excited about it.

I think they really appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas, but also I think, in many cases, it became a teambuilding event. Some of them—and we’ll show some of the clips at Expo—some of them, they just really got a lot of people involved and they were funny, super creative. It was a lot of fun watching all of them.

The other thing that I really loved about it is we received great videos from all types of organizations. It could be the smaller rescue group all the way to the large, busy, high-volume municipal shelter. Everyone. It really went the whole range of organizations, and that to me was very exciting.

Personally, I was surprised by how tech-savvy some of the ideas were.

It is the age of technology, and I did like that. I like to see how technology can make things more efficient for us. Not only from HeARTs Speak and Front Street, but we saw a number of entries that were about utilizing technology. On the two that are the finalists, I personally have always thought that we need to make marketing [accessible] for everyone and so having a technology solution to do that is really helpful and will move us along forward much more quickly. On the flip side, I think the one thing that we’re also lacking is really doing better on increasing that return-to-owner rate and making sure that all lost pets get back home. To me, those are two areas of need for animal welfare generally, and seeing organizations put together great ideas, technology-related ideas to move us forward, I think is incredible.

Outside of the finalists, were there any entries you particularly liked?

Actually, there was one in particular, and they did pretty good. It was Kern County [Animal Services in California], and it was their idea for a kitten foster program in a prison. For many years, shelters have been doing prison programs for dogs, especially for [dogs with behavioral modification needs], but it makes total sense, right? Why not do it for kitten fosters, too? So it made sense, it was a great idea, and they did a great video. So I was a little disappointed that that one didn’t make it to [the final three].

Editor’s note: You can view Kern County’s great idea here; you can read about similar programs here.

Do you have any advice for organizations that didn’t make the final three?

Keep moving forward! Just because it didn’t make it in the Innovation Showdown, there were a lot of great ideas, keep moving forward on them. There are other ways to get funding. Move forward, and whether they’re applying for grants in other areas or maybe talking to larger donors, I think they should still keep moving forward with those ideas. Maybe they’re going to prove us wrong. It’s like the idea on Shark Tank that didn’t get funded and became the big company, right? Maybe they’ll all prove us wrong, and they’ll say, “See, y’all should have picked me!”

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