3D knitting startup incubates Hoodini
Winnings from Start Garden’s 100 Ideas contest will help business bring infant swaddling product to market.
Last year, Liz Hilton was hard at work using her 3D knitting machines to make product prototypes for various industries — and then came her lightbulb moment.
Eleven months ago, she had a son. In her first two weeks as a mom, she struggled with how to swaddle him at bedtime so he couldn’t escape and risk suffocating on loose fabric near his face.
“So many women are in this situation because when you’re at the hospital, you’re not exactly taking notes (when) the nurse is showing you how to swaddle,” Hilton said.
“I became a nervous Nellie as soon as I became a mom. I was paranoid about everything and especially that my son would get out of the swaddle. Whether or not he would wake up in the night crying, I had trouble sleeping just because of that.”
Hilton said many fellow parents rely on a gadget called Owlet, which monitors babies’ breathing as they sleep. But she said if the monitor showed her son had stopped breathing, it might already be too late.
“I think preventive products are more important,” she said.
As soon as she returned to work, she began developing an escape-proof baby swaddle — called the Hoodini — using one of her CNC flatbed weft knitting machines.
She tried the prototype with her son, and it worked.
“He couldn’t get out of it, and he loved it. It was great,” Hilton said. “My husband was so excited when it worked, he was like, ‘Liz, you’re going to sell a million of these.’”
Over the past several months, she has continued to tweak the product based on the feedback from the testing phase with a group of moms.
As it now stands, the Hoodini has arm tubes to protect against Moro reflex — the sensation of falling that jolts a baby awake — and face scratching.
It has hug technology, which Hilton has trademarked, built into the chest area to give the baby the sensation of a hug all night long.
The newest model has an opening at the bottom that grants easy diaper changing access when open and keeps the feet warm when closed.
Hilton launched a Kickstarter campaign in May, seeking to raise $20,000 for costs associated with bringing the product to market. The 30-day campaign was unsuccessful, which Hilton partially attributes to the fact that her target customer base is not on Kickstarter.
Luckily, she raised the cash anyway by becoming one of 10 entrepreneurs to win a $20,000 prize via Start Garden’s 100 Ideas pitch competition July 10.
In addition to finalizing a patent pending, Hilton plans to use the funds for liability insurance, marketing, investing in yarn stock so she can start manufacturing more Hoodini inventory in her KNITit studio and debut the product at trade shows in Chicago and Detroit in August.
“The yarn I’m currently using is moisture wicking, and that’s great,” Hilton said. “But the yarn that I want to purchase in the future (called Cocona 37.5 and made ‘with active particles from lava sand and coconut shells’), I want it to be thermal yarn that can regulate body temperatures.”
At the time of the Business Journal’s visit, Hilton was in the process of receiving the yarn samples from Cocona and planned to send back samples of the Hoodini made with that yarn so it could be tested and a yarn licensing agreement reached.
Hilton said she understands the importance of “above and beyond” quality to the moms who will be buying her products, so she paid for “expensive and reputable” safety tests from the accredited laboratories Applied Textiles in Chicago and Intertek in Grand Rapids.
The results are good, she said, and will ensure she is able to get a favorable insurance rate, which is what she needs before going to market.
Hilton’s end goal is to make her biggest sales via wholesale, to retailers such as Target, Buy Buy Baby and Meijer.
But she also will be launching her own e-commerce site, littlehoodini.com, on Aug. 24. Newborn size Hoodinis will sell for $35 and 2- to 6-month size will be $40.
Customers can pre-order swaddles — including specialty preemie sizes or corporate gifts — by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
She said she also aims to sell her products in boutique shops.
“I actually went to Tip Toes in Holland, and Kirsten, who owns the shop, said ‘no’ to my product, but she had a sample there and her sales associate saw it, and then a customer came in and started describing a sleep sack that nobody could escape,” Hilton said.
“The salesperson said, ‘Oh, we have something like that. We’re not selling it, but I’ll give you her info.’ So the fact that that’s happened gives me a lot of hope that my product will do well in boutique shops.
“I’m trying to do it all, and I think at least one thing will work out.”
Hilton said she hopes to scale the manufacturing of the product herself since her plans to get into contract manufacturing for other companies has not worked out.
“I’ve realized that it’s very difficult for me to compete with manufacturers that are doing development for next to nothing because they integrate that development into their piece price,” she said.
“I realized, ‘You know what, I might as well start investing in myself and pursuing my own ideas.’”
She said the Start Garden competition forced her to refine her plan for Hoodini and envision where things could be in five years.
“I really see this brand being more than just a swaddle. I think Hoodini could be the next big-name brand in infant sleep products,” she said.
Along with the Hoodini brand, Hilton also is exploring launching a business incubator for other startups in her space, which she is calling the KNITcubator.
“The companies incubated at KNITit would receive R&D from me in exchange for a nominal monthly fee and a percentage of sales or percentage of equity and manufacturing rights,” she said.
She also plans to continue working on existing projects in the consumer goods and health care sectors.