PITTSBURGH — Testing was about to begin. And the robotic infant car seat looked ready to go — or at least the 4moms company executives watching hoped that it was. The device automated the tricky task of installing a car seat — using motors and sensors to level and secure itself. This invention would address a frustrating problem familiar to parents everywhere.
If it worked.
“Let me emphasize: It’s a prototype,” a 4moms manager named Lin Lin reminded everyone.
This was the ninth prototype for the fast-growing company. The car seat, tweaked and re-tweaked, was supposed to be on store shelves last year. But that had been delayed to at least early 2016.
The device had to be perfect. You don’t release a child safety device in beta. And it wouldn’t be enough for parents to simply “like” a robotic car seat charged with protecting their most precious cargo.
“Trust is another degree higher,” said Mara McFadden, a 4moms senior product manager.
4moms is a robotics company that, as CEO Rob Daley puts it, “just happens to be focused on babies.” It has found success with a self-folding stroller and automated baby swing — using robotics to enhance the convenience and “wow” factor in its higher-end baby products, which have found their way onto the shelves of retailers such as Target and Babies “R” Us.
But the 4moms car seat aims to take on an even tougher challenge. More than 70 percent of car seats are misused — mostly incorrect positioning and loose straps, according to federal safety data. There’s even a network of trained inspectors — stationed at hospitals and fire and police stations across the nation — who you can visit to verify that a car seat is installed the right way. Car seats are difficult to use.
A do-it-itself car seat could change that.
Despite being thousands of miles from Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh has quietly accrued a reputation for tech innovation. It’s home to Carnegie Mellon University’s vaunted robotics program. Google, Apple and Uber all have growing operations here.
The 4moms product-testing room sits on the ground floor of its offices downtown along the Allegheny River. The company’s 170 employees moved into these airy digs late last year.
4moms got its start in Pittsburgh 10 years ago. And although plenty of moms work there, the company was founded by two men. The name came from the five moms who attended its first focus group. But Daley, one of the co-founders, didn’t like the sound of 5moms. So he shortened it.
In this way, everything about 4moms is deliberate. Innovation is not accidental. Insights are not generated alone. The venerated Silicon Valley archetype of self-absorbed dreamers thinking up the next big thing is frowned upon here.
“We don’t like people with ego,” Daley said.
That appealed to the company’s other co-founder, well-known robotics expert Henry Thorne.
In the early 1990s, Thorne invented what is considered the first personal robot. It was called Cye. And it was revolutionary. People could use a simple graphical interface to vacuum around the house and haul small items. The press fawned. Morning talk shows booked him. And the $695 Cye flopped.
“It didn’t have a use,” Thorne said. “It couldn’t really answer the question, what’s this for?”
With the help of a business consultant, he converted Cye into a bulkier robot called TUG and ended up founding a company that has sold TUGs to more than 100 hospitals for hauling around medical supplies.
Then, in late 2004, Thorne met Daley, a former investment banker. They struck a deal. Daley would identify the opportunities. Thorne would figure out how to make them happen.
It was about calculation, rather than raw inspiration.
“I transitioned to trying to make stuff that matters by listening to someone who understands the mind of the consumer,” Thorne said.
The first 4moms product was a device that slips over a bathtub spout and monitors water temperature. Then, 4moms introduced an infant tub with the same technology. In 2010, it shipped the mamaRoo automated bouncy seat. Two years later, the Origami self-folding stroller — which has sensors to prevent it from collapsing with a child inside. Then, the Breeze portable playpen and rockaRoo infant seat.
Today, the company has raised $84 million in private funding, including investments from Bain Capital Ventures and Newell Rubbermaid, owner of baby-products company Graco. 4moms declined to reveal whether it was profitable, but says revenue grew to $48.9 million in 2014 from $6.6 million in 2011.
The Origami stroller, especially, has enjoyed a star turn after being taken up by celebrity moms such as Jennifer Garner and Natalie Portman.
And then there’s the car seat, which 4moms expects will retail for $250 to $350, comparable to seats from brands such as Maxi-Cosi and UPPABaby.
The company unveiled it in 2013 at the all-important ABC Kids Expo — the Consumer Electronics Show for juvenile products. When Daley demonstrated the product, which he said would be available in 2014, the audience broke out in applause.
But the car seat ran into problems. Daley said he was wary of “inventing on a timetable.” So they pushed back the release date to get the car seat right.
An infant seat typically comes in two parts: seat and base. And it’s the base, which typically latches into the rear seat, that’s the pain. It’s difficult to secure properly. “How to install a car seat” is a popular YouTube subgenre.
4moms focused on the base, seeking to reduce the installation process to pushing a button. Its base is crammed with three motors, a high-powered processor and a dozen sensors. These electronics determine the plane of the vehicle and detect the correct tension — and it has to work in any back seat, in different climates. Plus, the robot rechecks installation before every ride. And the infant seat needs to protect babies weighing from
5 pounds to north of 22.
“Robots like predictability,” said Kevin Dowling, 4moms’ vice president of engineering, who previously has worked on projects including wearable electronics and mobile robots to explore other planets. “And all of ours face different things.”
Some features were cut. The company considered adding an alarm to prevent a baby from mistakenly being left unattended in a vehicle, but discovered this was too complicated and prone to false reports.
And the robot needed to pass crash-testing mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That took place in April.
“Everyone held their breath together,” said McFadden, the product manager.
The car seat passed.
But even now, with the product launch approaching, the car seat still doesn’t have a name. Internally, staffers give each prototype a code name. The latest iteration was known as Chewbacca.
In the product testing room, Chewbacca was ready.
Deseree Younes, 25, had been invited to take part. She was the ideal candidate: a first-time mom-to-be who didn’t own the company’s products. Her every reaction was being watched by executives in the room and recorded for parsing later on. (Observers were asked to not record video of their own.)
The company’s quest to invent a device to address one parental anxiety point had produced lots of anxiety of its own.
“This is where the magic happens,” said Lin, the 4moms manager, as the test began.
Younes removed the car seat from its box and loaded it on a vehicle seat that had been rolled into the room. Younes pressed a large button that glowed blue on the side.
“Park your car on level ground,” said Younes, reading aloud instructions from a small LCD screen on the base. “Press the button to continue. Connect both latches.”
She struggled for a moment to locate the two steel latches tucked into the rear seats.
“Oh, I did it!” Younes announced.
She was about to move on when Lin interrupted: “Wait. I want to ask you a question.”
“But I wanted to know what happens!” Younes replied.
Lin peppered her with questions — many of them focused on how confident she felt during each step. Parents needed to feel reassured by the unseen robotics.
Younes pressed the button to start the robotic installation. The device rocked up and down, followed by the gnashing of motors tightening the base to the latches.
“Wow,” Younes said. “Wow, look at that.”
The robot had done its job.
“I’ve never seen a car seat that’s installed like that,” she said.
The 4moms staff took notes. McFadden paid particularly close attention. She has two children, a boy and a girl. She intended to have her youngest, Lincoln, be the first baby to use the 4moms car seat. That showed how much she trusted the device.
But they needed to hurry. Lincoln was already 3 months old. By next summer, he probably will have outgrown it.