Emory Friends Battle Canine Obesity Epidemic

Canine obesity in American dogs may soon soar past 50%. Varsity Pets aims to change that statistic.

By Michelle Valigursky

Story Photo

Dogs need daily exercise to stay fit and healthy. The Varsity Ball promotes active play without human interaction.

For many of us, dogs are our best friends and full-fledged family members whose well-being and happiness are important priorities. For Dan Schulof 04C 07L, Michael D’Amico 04C, and Nathan Mostow 04C, their love of dogs, their passion for fitness and exercise, and their enduring Emory friendship has become the winning formula behind Varsity Pets.

Friends

Varsity Pets’ Dan Schulof 04C 07L, Michael D’Amico 04C, and Nathan Mostow 04C at the Atlanta Pet Expo. Products sold out, and “We were ecstatic,” Mostow recalls.

“While most health-conscious consumers appreciate the importance of eating right and managing their own weight, comparatively few dog owners appreciate the dangers posed by canine obesity, an epidemic which affects approximately half the dogs in America, according to the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention,” says Schulof, the company founder and chief executive officer.

In 2011, Schulof forged the idea that changed their lives. “I had been practicing law in the private sector for more than four years, but my definition of success had changed,” Schulof recalls. “While I was proud of my work, I felt the need to devote myself to a project that would improve the lives of everyday people like me. As a fitness enthusiast, I was astounded to learn about the prevalence of canine obesity – and about the gravity of its life-threatening consequences. I realized that by helping busy pet owners keep their dogs fit and healthy, I could help them form better, longer-lasting relationships with their beloved pets. As a dog owner myself, that really hit home. Canine obesity was an important cause that just needed a champion.”

Schulof proposed “the idea for leading a revolution in how dog owners think about their pets’ physical fitness” to his college friends D’Amico and Mostow. Both D’Amico and Mostow agreed to join as operational partners.

The business took shape and the company launched its first product in late 2011, a guaranteed indestructible dog toy designed to allow dogs to exercise without human interaction. They called it the Varsity Ball. “We realized the biggest reason dog owners weren’t providing their dogs with daily exercise was lack of time,” says D’Amico. “The Varsity Ball solves that problem by channeling the natural herding instincts many dogs have into an exhausting full-body and independent workout.”

“Customers connected with the Varsity Ball,” says Mostow. Without any outside investment or high-profile marketing, the company sold more than $170,000 worth of product in year one, while putting in place a manufacturing facility, warehouse, and fulfillment center to handle the rapidly increasing order volume. When approached by major companies www.fab.com and www.groupon.com, the team “experienced surreal validation of not only the business concept, but also the sacrifices we each made to get here.” Schulof projects, “Varsity Pets is on track to hit more than $750,000 in revenue in just the second year of operations.

To product test and validate their concept, the team at Varsity Pets worked with top canine trainers as well as large mammal handlers at Zoo Atlanta. ”We knew the Varsity Ball was tough,” says D’Amico,” so we turned it over to lions, elephants, and tigers and let them do their worst to destroy it. We wanted to prove to consumers that this really was the toughest dog toy on the market. With that video, we just looked at each other and thought ‘how cool is that?’”

A Sports Drink for Dogs

On May 21, Varsity Pets launched its latest innovation: Drool Fuel. Schulof explains that customer feedback steered them toward creation of “a nutritional product that maximized the health benefits of exercise,” he says. “So we designed a sports supplement that would enhance workouts.”

After months of successful testing with some of the nation’s best canine athletes, the patent-pending Drool Fuel formula promises to help active dogs recover quicker from physical exercise and stay healthy and hydrated in hot summer conditions.”  

Varsity Pets prioritized academic research throughout development. The team based Drool Fuel on “more than 75 published and peer-reviewed academic research studies.” D’Amico notes that the company consulted with top sports science chemists and worked with top-ranked competitive canines. To substantiate claims that “Drool Fuel’s patent-pending blend of canine essential amino acids, B vitamins, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and antioxidants helps replenish the nutrients that dogs use up during strenuous activity,” the company published a technical research white paper.

Emory Entrepreneurs at Work

At Emory, Schulof, D’Amico, and Mostow shared plenty of great times. Upon graduation, they remained in touch while following separate career paths. As they soon realized, life often comes full circle back to important friendships and shared values. And those friendships and values often have a common source.

“Emory has been critical to the success of our company,” says Mostow. “When Dan suggested Varsity Pets, we pooled our resources and tapped into the training we received at Emory. We each bring our unique and diverse skill sets to bear on the multitude of challenges we face every day. It’s been a team effort from the very beginning, and from the start our Emory educations have been right at the core of our success.”

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Michelle Valigursky