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Innovation Economy

Monitors keep a long-distance eye on baby

Rest Devices uses a 3-D printer to make the small, turtle-shaped unit that holds the electronics that monitor the baby and clips on to the onesie.

Rest Devices uses a 3-D printer to make the small, turtle-shaped unit that holds the electronics that monitor the baby and clips on to the onesie.

In cribs around Boston, several dozen babies have been beta-testing a new product: a onesie festooned with physiological sensors. The sensors collect data about an infant’s breathing, skin temperature, wake and sleep times, and body position, and relay it to a parent’s smartphone.

Just as NASA monitors astronauts orbiting the earth, Mom and Dad may soon be able to track their offspring’s current condition, whether they’re a few yards away, at the office, or in a hotel room in Hong Kong.

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Dulcie Madden, chief executive of Boston-based Rest Devices, calls it “Nursery 2.0.” Rest and another Boston start-up, My Sensible Baby, are developing products that could hit the market as early as next year, priced at $150 to $200. And start-ups in places like Spain, Utah, and California are working on other wearable technologies for the diapered demographic; one, Sproutling, raised $2.6 million in September.

But it’s unproven whether parents are hungry for more data about their infants. And getting retail shelf space for a new type of product is a challenge. “People get into the baby business when they have a baby, and they feel like there are these huge opportunities for new products,” says Bob Monahan, cofounder of UPPAbaby, a maker of strollers and car seats in Hingham. “But it feels like it’s getting harder every year.”

As sensor technology and wireless communicators get smaller and less expensive, entrepreneurs are exploring all kinds of new uses for them. Prototyping new products has also become cheaper with the advent of low-cost 3-D printers.

Rest Devices has relied on a 3-D printer to make the small, turtle-shaped unit that holds all of its electronics, and clips onto the hip of the onesie. “It’s about the size of a Nilla Wafer,” says Madden, “but not so small that it would be a choking hazard.”

The company’s Mimo Baby Monitor will sell for $199, including three cotton onesies, the clip-on sensor pack, and a base station. Data from the baby, like whether she is sleeping on her stomach or back, is sent from the crib to the base station, and then over the home’s Wi-Fi network to the Internet. A smartphone app displays the data, with charts indicating when the baby’s position changes. (The base station also has a microphone, so it can relay live audio.)

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My Sensible Baby is developing a similar product, though its sensors are encased in a disk that fits into a special pocket on the chest of the onesie. The company won $100,000 in an entrepreneurship competition earlier this year. In June, Cooper quit his job as a footwear engineer for the Army to work on the business full time with cofounder Jeff Tagen.

“My cofounder is a father of two, and he had the experience of going into his daughter’s room all the time to check on her breathing,” Cooper says. “But he was always anxious about waking her up. It seemed like a problem that could be solved.” Cooper says the company hopes to sell its product for about $150, and he is talking with investors.

Julie Dollinger, a pediatrician who runs the community pediatrics program at Boston Children’s Hospital, says this new wave of monitors could eventually prove useful for parents whose babies are diagnosed with health issues such as heart problems or sleep apnea. But for healthy infants, she says, “I could see it making parents more anxious, as opposed to less. It medicalizes what should be a normal part of child development.”

Ali Pincus-Jacobs, a Brookline resident with a toddler, says, “If these were widely available and not too pricey when he was born, I may have tried them out.” But, she adds, she would be worried about false alarms.

Rudina Seseri, a Cambridge venture capitalist with a 4-month old daughter, admits that she checks her child’s video monitor “every five minutes” while at home, but says she’d be concerned about privacy and security of information collected by wearable devices.

Retailers will require some persuading to stock these next-generation baby monitors. “We have always felt that these products have the potential to make a potentially stressful time in people’s lives even more stressful,” says Eli Gurock, founder of the Brookline-based Magic Beans retail chain, which sells baby gear and toys. “And the reality is that many of these products don’t have a very long life. Parents stop being overly nervous about monitoring their baby’s vitals after three months or six months or a year.”

Owlet Baby Care, a Salt Lake City start-up, has collected more than $200,000 in pre-orders for its sock-like data collection device, which sells for $250. But when Rest Devices ran an online fund-raising campaign this fall with a $200,000 goal, it collected just $35,000 in commitments. Under the rules of the crowdfunding site hosting the campaign, Madden explains, that money was returned to customers.

But entrepreneurs tend to be good at ignoring doubts about their products. Madden says that most moms and dads don’t know what crowdfunding is. And while the campaign “got us some great press, it wasn’t necessarily in places where moms are looking for information about new baby products.”

Madden says her six-person company recently raised $1.2 million from a group of investors, including Cambridge-based Experiment Fund, and is on the verge of announcing a partnership with a national retail chain.

And Cooper of My Sensible Baby is about to bring on a new unpaid beta-tester for his company’s prototype. His first child is due next month.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsmer@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kirsner.

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