A part-time government job delivered the inspiration, the funding and the test bed for Goodnature to launch a global business.
“Whenever they had an idea, I'd come up with a hare-brained kind of solution to it and we'd see if it would work,” van Dam explains. “They would understand the ecology and I would understand the technology and we would come up with a solution.
There was one problem, however, that van Dam needed no help spotting – pest control, and especially trapping, was hugely labour-intensive and costly.
It seemed totally illogical that someone had to physically check and rebait each trap every month.
Van Dam was intrigued and enrolled the help of a fellow Victoria University design student to brainstorm “100 ways to kill a rat”. The pair quickly homed in on the most likely option – a trap that reset itself – and asked DOC for support.
“They'd heard that quite regularly over the years, I think, and no one had ever done it,” van Dam says.
Despite that, DOC was encouraging and gave the pair a $20,000 R&D grant. Two months later, van Dam was back with two prototypes of resetting traps.
DOC was impressed and, joined by friends Stu Barr and Craig Bond, van Dam set about developing a working product.
The traps now sold by van Dam’s company Goodnature are based on those early prototypes, using C02 gas canisters, the type you put in a SodaStream carbonator, to reset traps after they have been tripped.
The cannister choice was key to Goodnature’s rapid success: they were freely and globally available and CO2 is an inert gas posing few health or environmental challenges.
But as van Dam says, “anybody can make one of something”. The success of Goodnature depended on being able to produce traps affordably and at scale.
Toil and trouble
The three-year journey to full production was “pure toil” - more R&D, humane trials, large-scale field trials with DOC and the development of injection molding tools. Along the way, a possum version of the trap was designed to go with the rat and stoat original.
One of the biggest lessons learned was that scientific trials and innovation are quite different beasts.
“When you start a scientific trial, you don't change what you're doing,” van Dam explains. “You just let it run its course.”
Van Dam and his team would see emerging issues and want to make changes during the trial.
“That kind of freaks scientists out quite a lot. It was a difficult time, but it turned out that our traps performed equal to or a bit better than every system that we currently have available.”
Goodnature’s traps eliminate 90 per cent of the labour effort normally used in trapping campaigns.
“Having them prove that was the case was really powerful to us,” van Dam says.
The company is now making a trap a minute – and doing it locally in New Zealand.
“They all have to be perfect these days which is quite a different scenario,” van Dam says. “There's been a huge amount of refinement and betterment of the system to what we have today.”
From NZ possums to Hawaii's mongoose
Another thing that has changed is the addressable market, which just seems to grow.
As van Dam puts it: “The first thing was to sell the thing you've got and then the second thing was to try and understand the market that you could potentially have.”
The team spent time in offshore markets trying to understand the market. It now has distribution in those countries with more coming on-stream.
The company’s original products have been progressively enhanced, most notably with mobile apps, and new products, such as the A18 trap for larger mammals, developed to address different target species and environments.
In addition to rat, mice, stoat and possum control locally, Goodnature is tackling grey squirrel control in Europe, mink control in Scandinavia and mongoose control in Hawaii and Japan.
Distribution has also helped Goodnature develop its ideas about the eventual customer – not just organisations like DOC, but the general consumer.
Goodnature has proved both the truth and the error of that famous misquote of poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emmerson: "If a man can make a better mousetrap than his neighbours, the world will beat a path to his door."
“They forgot to mention that you then have to do the humane trials and then you have to work out distribution channels. All of the data and proof and four years’ worth of efficacy testing and all of those sorts of things.”
Tough (Kiwi) customers
Coming from New Zealand, a nation of knockers and tall poppy cutters, may not be good for the stress levels, but proved to be a powerful intangible asset.
“The power of New Zealanders being so critical and sceptical has made us incredibly powerful when we go overseas,” van Dam says.
“It's like playing a game of whack-a-mole in New Zealand. You say: ‘Here's a resetting trap’ and people go ‘Oh, but you have to change the bait every month so what's the point?’ And you go ‘Oh, okay, so here’s the resetting trap with a bait that lasts six months.’”
Then the sceptical Kiwi complains that you can’t see what the trap has killed.
Goodnature: “Here's resetting trap with the bait that lasts six months plus an electronic device that tells you how many times it's gone off.”
And so it goes on until the team heads offshore with a device so thoroughly resolved that inspires a degree of awe.
The challenges of the local environment have also helped hone development.
“We have an expectation that these traps will last 10 years at the bottom end of Stewart Island and you just put a new gas canister in and they'll keep going.”
The nearest competitor is an electronic system out of Denmark that costs $2500 a pop, van Dam says.
Toxicant bans overseas are also playing to the company’s strengths, with biodiversity control organisations now forced to move away from traditional poisons.
While van Dam is confident the company is now well understood in global conservation circles, other channels to market need to be understood and developed.
“In Scandinavia the growth is really around pest controllers, professional pest control. Then in the US it's all online so it’s purely around direct-to-consumer stuff.
“We have a really broad ability to sell into three or four really key channels. What we're attempting to do is understand how each of them works so that we can then turn on those different channels in each of those other markets.”
With three or four project running at any one time, Goodnature aims to expand and grow its culture and people locally to support R&D and manufacturing to supply significantly more traps to consumers.
“That allows us the momentum to focus on the things that we started the business for: things like biodiversity and how to actually solve the New Zealand issue,” van Dam says.
“We all think of DOC, but actually DOC only manage 30 per cent of the country and our ambition is to be the provider of the tool for the other 70 per cent - individuals and households.”
“We have to really listen to the key message that comes from them and that is all around being humane, being non-toxic and being inoffensive - basically being hands-free."
New Zealand is so small, van Dam says, that it is possible visit every square inch of it. The real pest control challenge is not in difficult terrain, it’s in people’s backyards.