Calgary company Biopod builds smart habitats, shatters crowdfunding goals

Two Calgarians took the opportunity presented by a challenging local economy and started fundraising for their microhabitats, a move that's been more successful than either anticipated.

Duo behind the invention started the business after the price of oil plunged

Jared Wolfe (left) and Tom Lam, co-founders of Biopod started the company after the price of oil plunged. (Falice Chin/CBC)

There is a beautiful, lush rainforest in the office of a tech startup in Calgary, filled with bromeliads, ferns, tropical moss and orchids. A tiny blue frog perches atop a branch inside the so-called Biopod — a self-regulating "microhabitat" the size of a 36-gallon fish tank. 

"This is a dendrobates tinctorius azureus," Biopod co-founder Jared Wolfe explained.

"It's from Suriname, known as the blue poison arrow frog. In the wild they have some mild toxins."

In the world of frog-keeping, this particular subspecies is considered a "beginner frog." Nevertheless Wolfe said the Biopod is able to precisely replicate its habitat.

Not just frogs

Sunshine, oxygen level, humidity, rain and even wind — all of these conditions can be set with a single tap on a smartphone. There's even a built-in HD camera, so Wolfe can check in on froggie any time of the day.

But frogs are just one possibility. The Biopod supports hundreds of other potential settings for  herbs, butterflies, lizards and fish.

Billed as the "world's first smart microhabitat," the wow factor around this invention has catapulted the Calgary-based company to the top of Indiegogo and Kickstarter.

Since 2015, Biopod has raised close to $1 million on the internet, making it one of the most successful crowdfunding projects ever to launch in Canada.

"We started with Kickstarter — it was kind of an idea at the beginning to test the market," said Tom Lam, the other half of Biopod.

"We had some pretty modest goals with it. Fifty-thousand dollars was our initial goal. We blew by that within four, five hours."

A blue poison arrow frog hangs out in its Biopod at the company's office in Calgary. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Idea came as oil prices plunged

The two co-founders of Biopod — Lam and Wolfe, 39 and 40 respectively — met at their children's kindergarten. At the time, both fathers were still working mainly in real estate and oil and gas.

"Jared told me about Biopod and I'm like, 'Hmm! This is interesting,'" said Lam.

Turns out, Wolfe had been tinkering on a prototype for years as a hobby. He had studied frogs as a young biology student back in university.

After graduation, Wolfe entered what many would consider a "typical" Calgary profession — dealing with real estate and oil and gas.

But when energy prices began to plummet, Wolfe got another idea.

"I had a contract that was basically terminated with the drop in oil prices, so that kind of opened the door for me to pursue [Biopod] full time."

Lam had also previously worked in residential real estate, owning a business at one point. He had also spent some time in Silicon Valley, launching two startups there before returning to Calgary.

Lam said the marketing side of his brain lit up immediately after hearing Wolfe's pitch for Biopod.

"So much more potential than just the pet industry," Lam said. 

"Now we've grown it into a herb garden, where you can grow vegetables or you could just have it for home decor."

Part of Alberta diversification

The Biopod team recently debuted its five main product models at Interzoo 2016, the world's largest pet expo in Nuremberg, Germany.

"We went there with — again, pretty small goals," said Lam.

"What it turned into was a crazy nine-day event where we really became the star of the show."

Despite the enthusiastic global response, Lam and Wolfe plan to keep their business in Calgary.

"We look at Calgary and we think we really could be a part of the story, this diversification for Alberta," said Lam. "We need engineers and I think we have quite a few of those in Calgary."

The company is now focused on getting ready for its retail launch in September.