Do you trust a ro­bot with your baby?

In­side the quest to in­vent a safer car seat

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TODD C. FRANKEL IN 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

De­seree Younes, above right, tells 4moms man­ager Lin Lin about her ex­pe­ri­ence with the firm’s pro­to­type ro­botic in­fant car seat.

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 Pitts- burgh 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 self­ab­sorbed 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, well­known 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 mama Roo 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 rocka Roo 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 UPPA Baby.

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.

JOE AP­PEL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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