On average, a new parent loses three hours of sleep every night for the first year after having a baby, according to a survey conducted by Sleep Junkie. Instead of sleeping, they're tasked with taking care of their newborns all night long—feeding them, changing their diapers, and trying to get them back to sleep. But that’s not all new parents are doing in the middle of the night; they’re also worrying—a lot.
Most people experience anxiety from time to time, but first-time parents turn anxious worrying into an art form. Is the baby cold? Is the baby gaining enough weight? Is the baby happy? Should they call a doctor? Are they being a good parent? Will they ever get any rest?
Checking in on a newborn to make sure they’re sleeping safely and soundly can keep a parent awake night after sleepless night.
Kurt Workman’s worries started to mount when he learned that he had a baby on the way. At first, he worried about the possibility that his wife’s hereditary heart condition might impact their child. Then he worried about the possibility that their child might be premature. Then, his worried mind turned to not being able to watch over his baby while sleeping.
Workman was surprised to learn that there wasn’t a way to really monitor his sleeping infant at home—all he would have to go on was his own intuition.
Workman had seen medics in hospitals use pulse oximeters to continuously monitor a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels, but since none existed for home use, he realized that he would have to build one himself.
At the time, Workman was studying Chemical Engineering at Brigham Young University. He lacked the medical and engineering background to build the device by himself, so he teamed up with his classmates Zack Bomsta, Jake Colvin, and Jordan Monroe.
After conducting interviews with parents about their nightly concerns, the student team designed a wearable sock to measure an infant’s heart rate and oxygen levels and let parents see any changes through a mobile app. They called it the Owlet Smart Sock: a wearable device that continuously tracks a baby’s heart rate, oxygen levels, sleep patterns and quality of sleep.
While they were still at Brigham Young University, the team built the first Smart Sock prototype and entered it into the university’s Student Innovator of the Year competition. Not only did they win first place, but they also won the crowd favorite award.
With prize money in hand and support from parents-to-be, the Owlet team moved to New York City to participate in the Techstars accelerator. There, they continued to raise money and improve their prototype, all with the goal of helping parents know more about their babies. After conducting extensive consumer research, the Owlet team came to the conclusion that there was a real demand for what they could deliver: an affordable, user-friendly, wireless pulse oximeter that could be used at home by new parents for peace of mind.
Owlet ran a successful crowdfunding campaign. But then came the blow: the team discovered technical issues in their prototype. “Those were some really big technical hurdles to solve,” Bomsta said. “And although we put in so much work, it wasn’t as easy as we thought. We had ordered tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials to begin our first big run, and we literally had to scrap everything.”
The Owlet team decided that their idea for an at-home pulse oximeter was too good to give up on. The team moved back to Lehi, Utah and started from scratch, attempting to make good on their dream to transform medical technology into an easy-to-use consumer product that could give new parents peace of mind.
During this time, the Owlet team remembers moving forward slowly, solving one technological problem at a time. They faced a setback when they discovered that the Bluetooth connection that tested well in suburban homes simply didn’t work in urban apartments. Another setback: an algorithm that sent out frequent false alerts to parents. They also had concerns about fit and materials, and issues with sensors and temperatures.
But the Owlet team, which was now just Workman, Bomsta and Monroe, kept going because, as they explained, they knew firsthand that parents needed and wanted such a product. They had spent sleepless nights watching their own babies but were starting to see some success: friends testing their prototypes reported feeling relieved—and that they were sleeping better.
“Our device just made sense to parents,” Monroe said. “In the first few years we had our ups and downs, but we’ve been really lucky to stay focused on the consumer and their problems and do what’s right for them.”
In 2015, the first Smart Sock units shipped to users. Within weeks, the Owlet team noticed that parents started sharing stories, writing positive reviews by the hundreds, and spreading the word.
“As a mom of three, I didn’t expect to have anxiety the third time around, but it surely came on strong,” another mom wrote. “I decided to purchase the Owlet Smart Sock for some comfort, hoping it would relieve my anxiety, and it gave me so much comfort.”
Now in its third generation, the Smart Sock has won Owlet numerous awards, including the Best Startup of CES, Mother and Baby 2020 Innovation of the Year, and Best Baby Monitor.
Owlet joined the Alexa Fund portfolio in October 2016. “The relationship with the Alexa Fund has been incredibly valuable to us,” Monroe said.
According to Owlet, one of the benefits of joining the portfolio has been being able to have a direct connection to someone at Amazon.
Owlet believes that support from the Alexa Fund helped them get the word out about the product — and that a community of engaged parents helped them successfully compete with other wearable nursery products that later followed.
Monroe and Bomsta explained that the company was particularly successful in their organic marketing efforts by tapping into the active new parent community online — engaging with and listening to customers, nurturing brand ambassadors, sharing success stories, and expanding product offerings.
“There’s a lot of talking and asking questions in this new parenting experience,” Monroe said. “I think what we did really well was create a product that was inherently a noteworthy product.”
The Owlet team believes that answering questions from users, sharing testimonials, and hearing from trustworthy moms and dads helped to create an involved community of users. This community is, according to Owlet, how the product continues to reach both parents looking for a specific solution to their existing nighttime woes, as well as those who are simply drawn to the product because of its reputation for quality and effectiveness.
Monroe added: “When someone’s asking friends, ‘What should I put on my registry?’ Owlet’s Smart Sock is always tagged, because it is such a helpful product that the likelihood of it making its way into those conversations naturally happens.”
In addition to the reports from users, research has shown that the Smart Sock helps parents of babies sleep better and have greater peace of mind. Researchers studied 47,495 newborns wearing the Smart Sock and found that “parents felt significantly less anxious and reported better quality of sleep (96 percent and 94 percent of users, respectively).”
Following the Smart Sock’s success, Owlet continued listening to its community of parents. The company developed and launched a companion camera, streaming HD video with night vision and two-way audio. Why would they do it, if there were already so many baby cameras available for parents? Because Owlet’s users asked for it. Parents wanted “a holistic experience, where they could not only track their babies’ sleep, heart rate and oxygen levels, but also see, hear and talk to their baby regardless of where they are,” Bomsta explained. Owlet listened and designed a product based on careful research and feedback from parents.
Owlet continues to look into other ways of building a smarter and safer nursery, launching a new product last year: Dream Lab. Dream Lab is a personalized online sleep training program for children with video tutorials, step-by-step plans, and live support from renowned experts.
In a natural evolution from baby to pregnancy monitoring, Owlet is developing an at-home pregnancy monitoring product called the Band. The device uses passive ECG technology to read and record the fetus’s and the mother’s heart rate, track the mother’s sleeping position, and let the mother hear her baby’s heartbeat.
Together through the Smart Sock, the Cam, Dream Lab, and the Band, Owlet hopes to create a connected nursery. Owlet has come a long way from designing their first prototype, but throughout their trajectory, the company has stayed true to their mission—bringing peace of mind to parents by helping everyone get a good night’s sleep.