BATTLE CREEK — When Ken Sunden gets the itch to solve a problem, it’s nearly impossible for him to avoid scratching it.
Sunden found this to be true when he and his wife Debbie purchased a puppy, Chaos, from Ohio-based dog breeder Susan Endsley five years ago. Sunden learned two of the five puppies were small for gestational age (SGA) and did not survive. SGA puppies are essentially the runts of the runts and have difficulty regulating their body temperature.
After buying Chaos, “I was pulling off into rest stops while I was driving around during the day and sketching out how I would make an incubator for her — I know, that sounds totally normal,” Sunden said sarcastically.
“I built one and gave it to (Endsley), in part because I had empathy for her and also in part because I wanted to build it and stop thinking about how I would make an incubator,” he added.
Sunden eventually built a business around the product, called Puppywarmer. He has developed a series of proprietary incubators primarily used to support puppies that have gone through a stressful or traumatic event. This includes SGA puppies or those born via cesarean section.
Instead of blowing warm air like traditional incubators, the Puppywarmer uses an infrared heater that emits wavelengths to heat a puppy about an inch into its body. A sensor monitors and controls the air temperature while the closed cell foam floor mat warms up similar to how the sun heats asphalt. This ensures puppies are warmed from all sides.
The company also offers a coinciding oxygen concentrator, which can be used in tandem with the incubator. Those units are manufactured by a third party based on Puppywarmer’s specifications.
Puppywarmer now operates a 5,000-square-foot facility at 4950 W. Dickman Road in Battle Creek, the same facility that houses the city’s economic development arm Battle Creek Unlimited.
The Sundens are at the helm of Puppywarmer in addition to two full-time employees. The company has the capacity to manufacture roughly 100 incubators a week.
Breeders, veterinarians, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions have all used the Puppywamer, some calling it an emerging industry innovation.
A reluctant entrepreneur
Sunden’s professional background is rooted in technical sales. His most recent stop was a 17-year tenure at Nexthermal Corp. in Battle Creek, a company that specializes in smart heat management and thermal engineering.
Even after hatching the idea for Puppywarmer and discovering that Endsley found overwhelming success with it — saving 17 of the next 18 SGA puppies — he continued on with his full-time job.
Ultimately, Endsley convinced him to produce the incubators on a wider scale.
“She pushed me to start this company — I was a very reluctant entrepreneur,” Sunden said. “It took her about nine months of sending me photos of puppies that she saved with the incubator (until) I broke down and said I could really do this as a hobby business.”
Sunden assumed he could sell around 10 to 25 incubators a year, but the demand for the product has pushed him to sell 1,000 units within the first five years of the company. Most of those sales were in 2020.
Sunden connected with Battle Creek Unlimited, which assisted him in finding production space.
Yet another reason for pause in his new entrepreneurial journey came when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Just before the pandemic prompted statewide shutdowns, Sunden had issued his 60-day notice at Nexthermal and did not have any orders for incubators yet.
“I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it had I known how bad the pandemic would be,” he admitted.
Sunden forged ahead expecting dismal sales but instead is poised to finish 2020 with three times more sales than in 2019. In October 2020 alone, Puppywarmer completed eight times as many sales compared to the same month last year.
While Sunden had to juggle mild supply chain cramps, his foresight to stockpile the core elements of his incubators ensured that orders were fulfilled quickly.
He credits people familiar with his product for acting as ambassadors for it.
“They seemed to become really vocal with people they knew and really vocal on how they saved puppies with this system,” Sunden said. “We had not advertised to any great degree at all up until this point.”
One of the first incubators Sunden donated was to Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Rochester Hills-based nonprofit that trains guide dogs for the blind. Leader Dogs has an onsite vet clinic and about 150 dogs at any given time. The organization has 90 breeders in its breeding program and produces about 500 puppies a year.
The puppies are born and raised in host homes until they are seven weeks old and enter the program.
Leader Dogs Director of Veterinary Services Dr. David Smith, who has been with the organization for 35 years, primarily uses Puppywarmer for C-sections. The puppies are placed in the incubator while their mother wakes up from anesthesia and can nurse.
“It was needed, especially when you’re combining oxygen and the constant, reliable rate of heat,” Smith said of Puppywarmer. “The ease of cleaning and disinfection of this product is just amazing. It’s really been a game-changer and the price point is such that it is available to most veterinarians even if they don’t (have a very big) puppy practice.”
Smith said he attends a yearly meeting for reproductive specialists and readily recommends Puppywarmer to universities and organizations that teach future veterinarians.
In fact, Puppywarmer is already used at Ohio State University, Oregon State University and Louisiana State University for teaching C-sections.
While veterinarians primarily use advanced technology akin to hospital equipment within their practices, the industry still lacked an effective solution for warming puppies.
“We didn’t have anything very sophisticated — I’m not sure why it took so long for someone to figure it out,” said Dr. Randall Carpenter, an associate veterinarian at Family Friends Veterinary Hospital near Grand Rapids.
“Heating pads were used, but those were very dangerous,” he said.
Just in the week Carpenter spoke with MiBiz, he had used the incubator three times already — ranging from C-section puppies to a bulldog puppy that underwent throat surgery.
Carpenter said he could see Puppywarmer in every vet clinic across the country.
“And, not just vet clinics, but for anyone that is raising small animals,” he added. “It would work for reptiles and could be great for birds. We use it mostly for puppies, but anyone that has anything to do with animals where they need to keep a constant temperature, it would work very well for that.”
Sunden acknowledged the Puppywarmer has potential to address a variety of alternative applications, and said some clients have implored him to create a similar incubator for larger animals.
For now, he is focused on perfecting his line of puppy incubators, which will feature new versions to be released soon.