TAMPA — A couple years ago, Mark Guarino was a successful engineer and software developer looking for a new business venture.
He found it in dog poop.
Now Guarino, founder of Mr. Dog Poop, Inc., is grabbing market share in what he sees as a growth industry: analyzing the DNA in dog waste to help property managers and homeowner associations nab residents who don't pick up after their pets.
He sees himself as an upstart David against an established Goliath, and he's not going to settle for being number two.
"It started with an idea and it's come a long way," Guarino, 52, said last week as he stood in his "canine crime lab" on his property in Town 'n Country. "We've really changed the dog poop game."
Guarino studied automotive engineering in college and made a good living in equipment manufacturing and, later, developing e-commerce software. When he decided in 2014 to try a new enterprise, he considered mobile hair salons and collecting gold from computer scraps.
Then a friend suggested he start a business picking up dog waste in people's back yards. He bought trucks and hired employees and launched in January 2015, but the profit margin was tiny and employees weren't reliable despite being paid $15 an hour.
The plan all along was to also offer a DNA service.
"I realized there's a huge market and a huge demand and only one competitor," he said.
The University of California at Davis's Veterinary Genetics Laboratory was first to develop the service. Dog owners collect saliva samples that are stored in a database. When an errant pile is found, customers submit a sample and DNA in the poop is checked against the database.
A company called PooPrints launched the service on a large commercial scale. Founded in 2010, PooPrints calls itself "#1 in dog poop management," with more than 1,700 clients in the United States.
Guarino thought he could compete by offering better service at a lower price. He had plenty of experience to build his website and create the software for the databases, but he had to learn the science of DNA. He hired two consultants and reached out to the UC Davis staff for help.
He started the business in his living room. About a year and some $400,000 later, Guarino has a working lab on the property and two technicians who process saliva and feces samples. He got his first DNA client in October and now has a client list of roughly 150 communities nationwide, about five of them in the Tampa Bay area. Residents pay a $35 registration fee for each dog. Communities are billed $50 for every successful match.
Guarino then creates a certificate of analysis to notify "poopetrators" that they've been nabbed.
"A comparison was made of 23 genetic markers using fragment analysis and industry standard genotyping," the certificate says. "The resulting data ... provides conclusive evidence that the identified dog was the source of the reported 'poop and run' event."
A spokesman for PooPrints disputed Guarino's claims about better technology and pricing, but he is undeterred. He says his company is on track to have at least 2,000 clients by the end of 2017, and he expects to hire more technicians and move to bigger location in Tampa soon.
His long-term goal is to register 50,000 dogs every year and process enough poop samples to keep 15 employees busy.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.