Parenthood is truly a life-changing event. You see the world in a whole new light when you hold a tiny baby that is your responsibility to nurture to adulthood.
Sometimes this new perspective gives birth to a business idea too. Here four parents talk about how they have their children to thank for opening their eyes to a gap in the market.
Nicola McDonnell’s first child, Sienna, was only three months old when she started to develop bad eczema. She had it everywhere but it was her face and hands, which she could scratch, that were most problematic.
“Every morning we were coming in to see what damage she had done to her skin during the night. We were looking for things out there that might help.” Covering her hands was key. “Children have no control or understanding that when you scratch your skin you need to stop,” she says. “They keep scratching it and scratching it until it bleeds.”
Traditional scratch mittens didn’t work for them and she gathered from talking to other parents that putting socks with elastic over their hands was ineffective too.
McDonnell, who has a business background, decided if there was nothing suitable out there, she was going to look at designing something. After all, about one in five children develops eczema at some stage.
“I wanted something that was easily available for parents, so they didn’t have to go through what we went through.”
Fun to wear
The result was the Shruggi, a cardigan-type garment that goes over the shoulders made out of organic cotton, with sleeves that end in integrated silk mittens.
“It’s stretchy, it doesn’t restrict their movement but they can’t get it off,” she explains. Early prototypes were brown and beige but Sienna didn’t want to put those on her so she realised bright colours were needed.
“We wanted something attractive to kids that they wanted to wear.” She also introduced a fun element by pairing the Shruggi with books featuring “the itchy little monkeys” – stories she wrote herself – and after whom the company is named. Sienna had reached the stage where she was asking why do I have itchy skin and why do my friends not have it? “I wanted to give her something to normalise it. These guys are fun and cute and cool little characters – and they have itchy skin.”
With the Shruggis manufactured in China and the books printed in Ireland, Itchy Little Monkeys started trading in 2016 when the website went live. At the end of the year they went into McCabes pharmacies.
“We’re growing all the time,” says McDonnell, who is aiming to add more products for the management of eczema.
“There is no cure for it – it’s total management,” she explains. Sienna, now aged seven, still has a daily routine of bath and creams, although she is too big for a Shruggi, which comes in five sizes, suitable for six months to three years.
Meanwhile, there's now also a four-month-old baby, Sophia, in their home in Killiney, Co Dublin. Of course her mother is keeping a close eye out for itchy skin "but she's showing no signs yet".
For more information, see itchylittlemonkeys.com
BABY DEVELOPMENT AIDS
When Ollwyn Moran was a young secondary school teacher, she did a course at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester. She recalls a lecturer there expressing concern about the impact the move away from carpets to wooden floors would have on the vital stage of crawling for babies.
“I remember I jokingly nudged one of the guys sitting beside me and said ‘why don’t they just make clothes with grips on them to help them crawl?’ But I wasn’t a parent at that time and babies weren’t on my radar.” She thought no more about it.
Fast forward five years and she had her first child, Matthew. Sitting at home drinking a cup of tea with her mother one day, she saw Matthew trying his best to crawl on the kitchen floor but his knees kept slipping out from under him
She realised, “Oh my God, seriously, that is really hard”, as she was transported right back to that moment in the lecture hall. There really was a need for something to help babies crawl.
She googled, couldn’t find anything on the market but, being a first-time parent, didn’t have any desire to develop a product. The landing was the only part of their Dublin house that had carpet, so she used to sit there with him every day for two to three months – “until he built up the strength in his legs that he could then deal with the slippy floors downstairs”.
Fast forward another two years, and she had a second baby son, Alex, and was faced with the same conundrum. But this time, with a toddler too, there was no time to be sitting with Alex on the landing. She thought, at this stage, maybe there was something to buy that would help.
“I remember going into Mothercare half hoping there was something and half hoping there wasn’t.” There was nothing.
She got a glue gun and put some on the knees of his baby grows to see if it would give him some grip. But, if anything, it made them worse. She ended up buying a remnant of carpet to put down in the livingroom, anchored by the weight of a sofa, so that he had traction.
Moran and her husband separated when Alex was one and a half and she continued teaching maths and biology but studied for a master’s in education at night. She hadn’t forgotten about her idea for helping babies crawl so, when she saw a competition for student entrepreneurs, she entered – and won. A condition of releasing the €6,000 prize money was that she start a company to produce the product.
Creeper Crawlers was its first incarnation but she later decided that was a “terrible name”. Meanwhile, after she entered and again won a similar competition run by the American-Ireland Fund, for which the prize was €10,000, Moran quit teaching to see where she could go with this project.
Brave? "Nuts would probably be more appropriate," she suggests. Looking back she sees all the innocent decisions she made without a clue of what was ahead "but I wouldn't change a thing". Now employing four people, she has rebranded to Cognikids, added products, secured patents and is exporting.
Moran is “obsessed” with research. Her rationale for the company is to look at how babies develop and the impact the modern environment may have on that. Could they benefit from having some everyday equipment tweaked?
For instance, the use of tablets by babies for play and entertainment is being linked to them not developing their pincer grip because they are just swiping and tapping the screen – not practising any fine motor movements, she explains. Cognikids produced a mesh-like grip designed so a baby can hold a bottle comfortably. But, as far as Moran is concerned, what’s key is that it also encourages them to pinch it, thus developing their pincer grip.
In the pipeline is a small open baby cup. Paediatric dentists now don’t recommend sippy cups with hard spouts as they are inclined to cause tooth decay and can affect development of the jaw and push teeth out of line.
While the teenage years are beckoning for her own sons, with Matthew, now aged 12, and Alex two years younger, she is delighted that she has recently become an auntie – so an inspirational line continues.
For more information see cognikids.com
Irene Queally enjoys cooking and when her first child was born, her mother gave her the "bible" in baby recipes – a book by Annabel Karmel.
“For Luca I cooked everything. I was very much a purist but it was easy and I liked it,” she says. But when his baby sister, Tilda, came along four years later, the reality of having a second child hit.
She was heading back to work after maternity leave, having spent most of the Sunday cooking, and she wondered why there was nothing better available than long-life jars of baby food. If she wouldn’t eat one of those herself, why would she give it to her baby?
“It literally started with that,” says Queally who, three years later, is presiding over the rapidly mushrooming Pip & Pear chilled baby food company. It helped that her family is in the food business, although it was something she had stayed away from up to then, working in fashion and training as a counsellor and psychotherapist.
First she experimented with the addition of baby food on the menu of her husband Bill's restaurant in Waterford. Up to then it had provided a baby bowl, with mashed potato and vegetables topped with soup or gravy, but these were all seasoned for adult customers.
“I put five dishes on and they just started to sell.” It seemed people were conscious of trying to keep salted food away from babies and they liked that all members of the family were included when eating out.
“Then people started to ask for takeaways. I thought that was interesting.” She recalls one woman coming and asking for 10 pots.
“People were paying and there were repeat customers so we knew there was something in it,” says Queally, who started to look at possible manufacturers for these products.
Winning the baby category in the Blas na hÉireann food awards at end of 2014 "was the most exciting thing ever" and, she felt, validated her creations. They launched at the end of May 2015 into Super Valu stores, have since gone into Aldi and Lidl and are due to go into Tesco. Already they are on their second cycle of parents "because you are losing them very fast", she points out. But they did introduce some toddler fare in September, bringing the age range to up to three years, with a total of 12 products
The premise of Pip & Pear’s tag line, “all of the goodness, none of the guilt”, was that parents could know the baby food they were buying was as good as they could make at home, so they didn’t have to feel bad about it.
“I think parenting is a big guilt trip – we’re just trying to lessen that”, says Queally. “Everybody feels rubbish for their parenting – now I feel more rubbish because I am working all the time!”
For more information see pipandpear.ie
INTERNET CONTROL DEVICE
John Molloy was some distance down the road of parenthood before his three offspring inspired him with a business idea.
Raising the first generation of children to grow up in a constantly “plugged in” world, he says it used to “annoy the hell out of me” that they had an internet-enabled device in their hands all the time.
But as an IT consultant, he reckoned he could do something about it. He decided the only way was to create a separate wifi network within the house, put the kids on it and then control their use of the internet from there. His experience was that children find a way around other forms of filtering and blocking.
“The logic in this was never touch a device – if you put something on a device, the child will remove it. But you can control the flow of traffic – and the only point you can do that is where it enters the house, ie the modem.”
After working out his own means of doing this at their home in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, he found other parents asking him if he could do the same for them. It was clear that concern about children's access to the internet was widespread.
He has since developed a commercial home internet control device called iKydz. It plugs into the wifi router and gives parents control of all internet devices that use wifi in the home, allowing them to block, restrict or schedule access to social media, inappropriate content, chat rooms and gaming, all from an app on the parent’s phone.
The company uses a third-party service to update its blocklist of porn and gaming sites. The day we talk, there are 4.26 million websites on the porn blocklist alone.
Despite this dark side to the internet, Molloy is “100 per cent in favour” of it as a valuable resource for children. His youngest “cost centre” – as he affectionately refers to his three children, aged 15 to 20 – receives all his education through his iPad.
“However that iPad only goes to certain places on the internet. He can get into all the sites he needs for his Junior Cert and that is what he is supposed to be doing.”
The original iKydz device doesn’t work if children use 3G or 4G on their mobile phones – although that can be easily controlled if parents don’t pay for phone packages including it, he points out.
However iKydz is launching a version envisaged for use on teenagers’ phones that, in addition to some content filtering and blocking, also has geo tracking.
“I have had the sleepless nights – ‘where are they?’ ‘When are they going to come home?’
“It is not that we are nosey, but for our own peace of mind we do want to know where kids are – particularly when they reach that critical age between 15 and 18.”
As Molloy says that, he checks the geo location for the phone of one of his sons and remarks that it is showing “he is not where he is supposed to be . . .” Who would want such a technologically savvy Dad!
For more information see ikydz.com