As a commercial and appellate litigator for Indianapolis-based law firm Baker & Daniels LLP, Kathy Osborn represents business and individual clients in state and federal court. She has faced formidable challenges, but one outside the courtroom proved especially difficult for the 42-year-old first-time mom: how to quiet her colicky son Harper when he awoke crying every night.
A music lover, Osborn was certain she could find a musical mobile that would play a variety of soothing songs long enough to lull him back to the land of nod. She was wrong.
After searching brick-and-mortar and Internet stores, Osborn found mobiles that played mechanical-sounding tunes for just a few minutes before needing to be rewound-an act that inevitably awakened Harper just as he was dozing off.
What's a working mom to do? The answer for Osborn was to invent a baby mobile that not only interfaces with an iPod or other media player but also projects soothing visual images onto a crib-mounted screen.
Osborn's idea proved so revolutionary that Whirlpool Brand selected her as one of five winners of their 2006 Whirlpool Brand Mother of Invention Grant contest. Whirlpool sponsors the annual contest to support and recognize moms who identify problems and invent ways to fix them.
Her prize included a $5,000 grant to further develop her product and a two-day "business boot camp" at Whirlpool's Benton Harbor, Mich., headquarters, where she learned from company experts and other mompreneurs like Baby Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark.
"Moms are the greatest consumers on the planet, but they don't get credit for it," said Audrey Reed-Granger, Whirlpool's director of consumer insight. "We really want to acknowledge the fact that a lot of times these are the best innovators in the world."
Reed-Granger said Osborn's product struck a chord with judges who saw her mobile as creating a solution to an unmet need-one of the four contest criteria.
More than a great idea
Tamara Monosoff, a former Clinton White House staffer, is founder of Alamo, Calif.-based Mom Inventors Inc., a product development and manufacturing company serving the juvenile market and the mom inventors' community. She says it's a myth that your product has to be completely novel-like the iPod or microwave oven-to succeed. Monosoff invented the TP Saver, a device born of frustration with her toddler who loved unraveling the toilet paper.
In her book, "Secrets of Millionaire Moms," Monosoff profiled Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop. "She didn't invent teddy bears-and she's the first person who'll tell you that," Monosoff said. "She did, however, invent something special: an emotional experience and connection between children, their caregivers and the special bears they create together.
"That was the 'secret' to creating her successful product, with a vision that was rooted in present-day factors."
That's the same philosophy Osborn utilized in developing her baby mobile.
"It's a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention," Osborn said. When she couldn't find what she assumed already existed, she started thinking about what she really wanted: something that could interface with an iPod or other media player and go beyond playing music by providing visual images of artwork or family photos.
"I wanted something where parents could have some impact over what's stimulating their child or soothing them as they're going to sleep," Osborn said.
The first step was a call to a patent attorney friend at Baker & Daniels.
"For me, patenting the idea was the first step," Osborn said. The patent application was filed July 21, 2006, and she recently was notified that it will be reviewed by the U.S. Patent Office in April 2008.
Baker & Daniels associate Bill Meyer helped Osborn file another patent application covering additional uses of her device, ensuring that her ideas are protected in the United States and abroad.
"Outside the U.S., there is something called an absolute novelty standard that requires a patent application must be on file before publicly disclosing your idea or product," he said.
Osborn's baby mobile system has three main components: a docking type device with built-in speakers that attaches to the crib and holds the iPod or MP3 player, a screen for displaying images and interchangeable attachments.
"I envision the baby mobile lasting a long time," Osborn said. "If someone has another child and they want to change the dÃ©cor of the room, the baby mobile will come with various covers that will coordinate with the design of the room." She's also designed the docking station to be removable and free-standing for when the child outgrows the crib.
Boot camp helps hone ideas
When she was notified in August 2006 that she was a winner, Osborn began compiling "massive lists" of questions to ask the experts at Whirlpool's boot camp. Her biggest question was "Where do I go next?"
"I was exposed to experienced and knowledgeable business executives and intellectual property attorneys," Osborn said. "They advised me that this is a product where creating a prototype would be very expensive but once it's in mass production, that won't be the case." She expects the baby mobile system to sell for less than $100.
Osborn's advisors suggested that she put together marketing materials and approach juvenile product manufacturers or those heavily involved in the iPod or MP3 player industry. She took part of the $5,000 prize and hired a graphic artist to put her design concept on paper.
While the advice she gathered from Whirlpool experts was invaluable, Osborn says she's probably learned more from the other moms in the contest who were much further along in the manufacturing process.
"I had just filed my patent," she said, "and everyone else had their patents ... and were either already selling their product or in the process of getting it manufactured."
Everyone suggested that Osborn attend trade association conventions. In April, she went to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association convention in Orlando, where she had an opportunity to identify key players in the industry and talk with some about her product.
"I made more contacts than I dreamed I would make," Osborn said. One of the major manufacturers she was introduced to at the convention recently contacted her and might be interested in striking a deal.
Because there are myriad ways of getting a product to market, Osborn is hopeful that in her case she can enter into a licensing agreement with a major manufacturer that will give her input into the product design.
Typically the licensing agreement pays the inventor a percentage of sales-from 1 percent to 10 percent.
Even though her patent is still pending, Osborn has learned that if a major manufacturer thinks you have a viable product, they want to develop a relationship early on. She's hopeful that in a year or two her baby mobile will be on the shelves at Babies R Us, Target and other stores.
Being an attorney and having access to a large intellectual property group at Baker & Daniels was a definite advantage, Osborn said. She has no plans to leave the practice she loves.
"If nothing comes from it, if I never am able to get a manufacturer to produce this product, I'll still feel that everything was worthwhile," Osborn said. "The relationships I made, the people I've met and what I've learned about business will help in my litigation practice."
Entrepreneur.com's "Mompreneur" columnist Lisa Druxman writes that for entrepreneurs, "the road traveled is different [but] what remains the same is having a dream and moving toward it. All you need is the idea and inspiration. Everything else is already out there."
Osborn agrees. "Don't underestimate your ideas. If you have an idea that's unique, go for it," she said. "There are lots of organizations and not-for-profits that help people with ideas." She admits that now she views everything with an inventor's eye.
"This is really a bit of a lark for me," Osborn said. "It's something new, unexpected and fun."