An Old Dog's New Trick: How A 70-Year-Old Entrepreneur Reinvented The Invisible Fence – Forbes


After selling his military startup, Ken Solinsky used his tech expertise to build a smarter canine enclosure using GPS. For pet owners, it’s a new leash on life.


Ken Solinsky wasn’t looking for a new business. He was living just outside Manchester, New Hampshire, after selling a military firm, Insight Technology, that he’d founded with his wife, Grace, to L-3 Communications (now L3Harris) in 2010. But in 2014 when an irrigation contractor he’d hired to work on a sprinkler system mentioned how often he’d accidentally cut the wires in invisible dog fences, Solinsky, a long-time dog owner, was intrigued. He wondered if he could design a completely wireless version that would get rid of homeowners’ frustrations and offer more flexibility.

 “I was floating ideas in my head, and checking for the sanity of them,” says Solinsky, now 70.

It took three years after he had the initial idea to develop the technology behind the SpotOn Virtual Fence. But when Solinsky brought it to market last year, he quickly found a market, as consumers proved willing to pay $1,495 for it (plus recurring charges of $6.95 a month for status updates, maps and tracking). That compares with as little as $200 for a simpler, do-it-yourself wireless fence with a smaller coverage area to anywhere from $1,200 to more than $2,000 (depending on size) for an in-ground invisible fence. In its first year of sales, his Manchester, New Hampshire-based company, OnPoint Systems, reached nearly $2 million in revenue. This year, in part because of the pandemic, Solinsky expects sales to triple, to as much as $7 million as more homebound people adopt pooches and the nation’s 63 million dog owners spend more time with their pets. Altogether it has sold roughly 5,000 fences. 

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Even before the pandemic, sales of pet tech products had been growing as technologies developed for people, like GPS and cameras, have been adapted for animals, and they’re expected to rise 13% this year, to $555 million, according to a recent report from market research firm Packaged Facts. Invisible fences, smart doors and other containment systems represent the largest category within that, at $192 million. That’s a small sliver of the $99 billion that people will spend on their pets in the U.S. this year, the bulk of it on food and veterinary care. But even before the pandemic, 6% of dog owners, or nearly 4 million households, had invisible fences or other containment systems, according to the American Pet Products Association, and Solinsky figures that he can help nudge that market up to 10%, while also developing new products. “We’re focused on high-tech products—because that’s our background—for pet owners,” he says.


The Booming Pet Tech Market

As technologies developed for people, like GPS and cameras, are adapted for dogs and cats, the overall market for pet tech is expected to rise 13% this year, to $555 million. The biggest piece of the pie is OnPoint’s sweet spot: invisible fences, smart doors and other containment systems.


The original Invisible Fence dates back to 1973, invented by a traveling salesman, who’d noticed an alarming number of dogs in the road. The concept took hold among suburban homeowners, and today the Invisible Fence, as well as the PetSafe and SportDog brands, are part of the portfolio of private equity-owned Radio Systems Corp. based in Knoxville, Tennessee, which has total revenue of more than $500 million. Traditional invisible fences operate with insulated cables that are buried on a homeowner’s property and broadcast signals to the dog’s collar. If the dog ventures beyond the set boundaries, it gets a noise or a light electrical zap, known as a static correction. Earlier technology for wireless fences rely on base stations that emit a radio signal that communicates with the dog’s collar, and only work in a circle around the base.

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Wireless options have proliferated in the past few years, says Lance Tracy, chief commercial officer of Radio Systems, and even Invisible Fence now offers a $2,500 wireless fence based on GPS technology. “Nirvana would be if we could find a technology that would allow us to precisely map out a yard like a buried-wire one does,” Tracy says. “That’s been the holy grail to find that technology.”

That’s what Solinsky is trying to do. With SpotOn, anyone can walk (or drive) the perimeter they want their dog to stay within and create a “fence” without wires. SpotOn can be configured in any shape or size, with up to 10 custom maps stored for easy access. That lets dog owners take the fence with them anywhere, whether to a second home, a friend’s place or, even, camping. As with other invisible fences, any dog that ventures close to the marked-off area gets a correction–first a noise, then a harsh noise and, if it doesn’t turn back before the boundary, a zap–but unlike traditional invisible fences their owner also gets a map showing their dog’s exact location in real time. “It’s an innovative twist on a product that’s been around for a long time,” says Steve King, CEO of the pet products association. 

While SpotOn primarily uses GPS data, it also triangulates with information from the European Galileo system and the Russian Glonass one, an added level of satellite data that improves SpotOn’s accuracy. It also uses a relatively large active antenna with high sensitivity to improve signal strength and inertial navigation MEMS (or micro-electromechanical system) components, such as three-axis accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes, to provide additional movement information and correct for possible satellite position errors. That compares with your typical smart phone or watch that uses GPS only and non-active chip antennas for compact size. “Our system is more accurate than the GPS in your phone,” Solinsky says.  

Solinsky, a heavyset man with a strong New York accent, grew up in a housing project in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, raised by a single mom. He worked for the U.S. Army after getting a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Clarkson University, and thanks to a government program was able to get a master’s in industrial engineering from Texas A&M and an MBA from Stanford. At the Army’s night vision research lab in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, he learned about night-vision devices, and ultimately spent more than a decade as a civilian program manager there.

In 1988, he founded Insight Technology, a maker of laser rangefinders and night-vision goggles, with his wife. They borrowed $250,000, taking out a second mortgage on their New Hampshire home and racking up debt at 18% interest on roughly a dozen credit cards. It was a risky move, but proved smart when Insight beat out 11 competitors to win a $2.8 million contract from the Army for an infrared aiming light. “By the time we got the award, we were 45 days from not making mortgage payments,” he says. “We started delivering after nine or 10 months, and the program was profitable even though we were the lowest bidder.”

Like most small military contractors, the company stayed under the radar by design. But Solinsky says that he grew the business to become the nation’s largest producer of night-vision and electro-optical products for individual warfighters, used by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations forces. At its peak, the company had 1,300 employees and revenue around $330 million. “Virtually every military combatant had one or more of our devices,” he says. “Only in America could somebody go from a city housing project to the kind of wealth and success we’ve had.”


“Only in America could somebody go from a city housing project to the kind of wealth and success we’ve had.”


In 2010, he sold the business to L-3 for a price that Forbes estimates at more than $300 million but stayed on for three years after selling the business before retiring. When the irrigation contractor started talking about how easy it was to tear up the underground wires in invisible fences, Solinsky–whose current dog is a golden retriever named Kai–called an engineer from his defense business, Sung Vivathana, for a reality check. Vivathana agreed that the idea wasn’t nuts. In 2015, Solinsky founded OnPoint, and hired Vivathana as its first employee and director of engineering.

For months, Vivathana says, he stitched together printed circuit boards, and wrote custom software to process GPS signals. “Imagine us carrying these big trays outside, and creating virtual fences and testing boundaries,” he says. They tested their efforts during the summer humidity and in the winter snows. They allowed dogs to roam, then put down tape measures to collect statistical data and see how accurate they were. 

Problems cropped up. Getting it to work under tree canopy where the GPS signal was weaker required finding special components and designing the dog’s collar so the GPS antenna always faced up. Miniaturizing the technology so that it could work on small dogs was a particular problem; the exacting nature of the product requires a minimum neck circumference of 12 inches, so it still won’t work on a chihuahua, though they eventually hope to do smaller collars and for now claim such lap dogs are less likely to roam. “We had several bugs where we didn’t know if it was a design bug or a concept bug,” Vivathana says. “It was a lot of trial and error.”

While creating the product was similar to the work Solinsky and Vivathana did with their military wares, other parts of the business, like consumer marketing and understanding dog behavior, were very different. Solinsky hired Jennifer Joyce, a consumer marketing veteran, as president to figure out how to sell direct to consumers. He also brought in dog trainer Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, owner of Philly Unleashed and author of the book The Teaching Dog, to come up with training protocols for their technology. 

Toni Provencher, 49, who works as chief of staff at a healthcare company, originally bought the SpotOn fence to keep tabs on her dog, Finley, at home. The four-year-old German short-haired pointer was always running off to chase chipmunks. But one of its biggest advantages, she says, is that she and her husband can now take Finley camping with them without anxiety. “I can take it anywhere I go and give her freedom to move around—and also give my arm a break,” she says. 

As the company grows, Solinsky figures on adding new pet-tech products to expand the business. What those might be, he’s not ready to say yet. “If we make a few bucks, great,” he says. “But if we enhance the lives of pets and pet owners, that would be a nice thing to be able to do.”



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