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As mothers of newborns with disruptive health issues, Jee Kim and Kristen Min decided they would rather go smart than go crazy. Both suburban Chicago women had their first child within a couple years after meeting through their husbands in 2000. Kim left her career in investment management, Min in financial services, for motherhood. Soon they were spending a lot of time at play dates discussing their parenting challenges.
Those challenges were substantial. In addition to the sleepless nights, diaper changes and crying fits that stress the parents of virtually all babies, Min’s child had severe eczema that required changing the crib sheet many times a day and often in the middle of the night. Kim’s child had a sensitive stomach and could not be breastfed and the food containers she used for her baby’s special formula were not keeping the precise mix separated from other compartments.
Their innovative solutions for these and other challenges led them to form their company, Innobaby, and share their unique products with other parents.
The moms’ challenges with the crib sheets and food containers ultimately led to the launch of Innobaby’s first two products in 2006: the Sleepin’ SMART Crib Sheet Topper and Packin’ SMART stackable containers.
Because crib sheets are notoriously hard to change—they wrap under the crib mattress to prevent the child from getting tangled in them—Min designed the Sleepin’ SMART crib sheet with a built-in waterproof mattress and ties at each corner to facilitate easy changes. She made the first prototypes and taught herself how to sew on a borrowed sewing machine.
Though the two mothers worked together, Kim took the lead on Packin’ SMART. Her challenge to transport a special formula that required a precise mix was exacerbated by her frequent traveling with her child back and forth to South Korea, in support of the import/export business she started after leaving her day job. She was seeing a lot of stackable container solutions on her travels to Asia but could not find anything comparable in the States for food and small item storage.
Kim used inspiration from the designs she saw in Korea and made key improvements, such as changing from a screw-on design to a snap lid. The two women invested $5,000 to get 200 of each product made for a consumer event. When they sold out in the first six hours of the event and took orders for the rest of the show, they knew they had hit on something with parents.
With additional orders looming, they decided to manufacture their products in South Korea largely because Kim is from there, knows the language and has a family member there to help deal with the factories face to face. It is a more expensive place to source product than some other Asian countries, but they have worked to mitigate that disadvantage.
“Our challenge was with higher manufacturing costs with South Korea,” Kim said. “We were able to overcome those challenges over the years with increased volume and maintaining healthy relationships with them.”
More invention heats up
The company’s primary products are in food preparation and dinnerware. It also makes teethers and is working to bring back a line of crib sheets.
Innobaby’s most recent product is the Aquaheat food and bottle warmer, which uses a specially formulated heat pack that sits inside of a warming pod. The heat pack can warm to 185 degrees Fahrenheit and transfer heat to the specially designed stainless steel baby bottle to warm milk without needing an additional appliance or power outlet. The product has been lighting up mommy blogs and was featured on the entrepreneur show “Hatched.”
Patents are a big part of Innobaby’s innovative strategy. Kim feels they are important to protect the innovations and for the validity of the brand in the marketplace. Kim and Min always start by filing provisional patents, which afford them a year to do more market research and ensure the innovation is marketable before converting to a full utility patent.
The success of the original products has allowed them to expand their product line with distribution worldwide. For the first three years, they worked out of their homes; eventually, they moved into an office in Chicago and were fortunate to have had enough revenue and consumer enthusiasm to get them through the recession. They are also working on a bath product to be re- leased this fall, as well as the relaunch of the improved Sleepin’ SMART crib mattress.
For Min and Kim, it’s not just about striving to solve parenting problems with novel products, or even the revenue that’s generated. They have constantly strived to create a positive and family-friendly workplace for their employees.
"We wanted to create a job place where local moms can come in and contribute and build the professional side of their lives,” Kim said. “A lot of intelligent women give up their jobs when they have kids, just like we did.”