The Create the Future Design Contest was launched in 2002 by the publishers of Tech Briefs magazine to help stimulate and reward engineering innovation. The annual event has attracted more than 14,000 product design ideas from engineers, entrepreneurs, and students worldwide.
As the 2020 contest launches this month, we sat down with Jon Sumroy, founder and CEO of mifold and winner of the 2016 Consumer Products Category, to learn how his winning product — the mifold grab-and-go car seat — was developed and how his products are helping to save children’s lives.
Tech Briefs: I guess we start at the beginning where the idea for Mifold came from. You were living in the US and your kids were little. They’d carpool with another family or other people would drive them, and you weren’t sure they were safe.
Jon Sumroy: I now know that they weren’t. At the time, because I didn’t really know...I only knew about car seats as a parent. At the time, we had three little boys. They were always in and out of other people’s cars. A lot of the time, they just didn’t have a car seat. I didn’t really set out to invent anything. I just wondered why didn’t anybody make something that was small enough for them to carry with them; it would always be available.
Tech Briefs: You can’t expect the grandparents to have three full-sized seats to take the grandkids wherever they’re going.
Sumroy: Grandparents don’t like the back of the car cluttered for the whole week when they only see them on the weekends. Grandparents have become a lovely market for us. I think it was a surprise. Again, if I go back to those days; it’s nearly 20 years ago. This is what’s amazing with the passage of time. I lived in the US from 2000 to 2002; now we’re in 2020. My parents would come and visit from England, and they’d have a rental car. Again, sometimes we’d juggle the seats from car to car. And other times not. The seed of the idea came all those years ago.
That was when I actually had an idea of how could you do it differently? Why do these things need to be big? They need to be big because traditional booster seats position the child. It makes the child’s hips and shoulders be where an adult’s would be so the seatbelt fits. I must have said this a million times now in the last few years. Instead of lifting the child up to fit the seatbelt, can you hold the seatbelt down to fit the child? I had this picture in my mind of a flat mat, a way of holding the seatbelt by the sides. Really nothing then happened for more than a decade. This thing kind of was filed away I suppose in the back of my mind.
In 2012, there was some research published that said half of kids in America don’t have a car seat when they’re carpooling. I thought 10 years after I had this idea, no one had done anything; maybe there was something in that. I started playing as a hobby.
Tech Briefs: Had you done any other kind of inventing or engineering?
Sumroy: I’m a consumer marketer. Most of my career to that point I’d spent in big multi-national companies doing consumer products. I worked for Unilever for many years doing male toiletries. No, I’d never had real experience at all in what I would have to do. First of all, I came up with an idea. But then design and engineering; we do a lot of work with material scientists and obviously regulatory affairs for car seats is important. I knew nothing about these things. If I think back now, what I did learn from my career up until that point was you have to get things done. I was kind of a general manager of businesses. I knew how to ask the right questions, find the right people. That’s all I really did. It’s only a small little example.
When I started playing with this and I was making a homemade prototype, I asked a friend who wrote patents. I asked him if I could do something with this. Together, we wrote this provisional patent, which I filed sometime in 2012. But then I said to him, do you know any industrial designers? He gave me business cards from a conference he went to. I met a few of them and I really clicked with one. It’s the guy who I’m still very close to and in touch with who designed mifold. But what’s interesting was, I got into the process with him and I’m saying, do you know any mechanical engineers. He said I’ve worked with these guys. When we came up with challenges, we needed an expert in plastic polymers, and it’s kind of this paper chain almost.
Tech Briefs: It’s networking with the right people.
Sumroy: Somehow, I started playing with this as a hobby in 2012. By the end of 2013, so 20 months later, it was starting to be expensive to make a homemade prototype, and I even flew once to the UK to take it to a crash test center. We make these gorgeous products. It’s high quality. The original prototype was a black canvas mat that had mountain climbing carabiner clips that you could attach in different places. The child would sit flat on the seat; not raised up. The seatbelt would get held down by clips. Today, the product is exactly the same. It’s a flat mat; it’s a seat now, but it’s still flat. It’s got guides that you can set in different positions, depending on the size of the child. Conceptually, it’s exactly the same thing. But I took this black folding floppy thing to an industrial designer and I said, this works. I’ve crash tested it to everybody’s surprise.
Tech Briefs: It’s got to be a little intimidating.
Sumroy: Especially me turning up not knowing what I was doing. They were truly laughing at me. “Who’s this idiot?” But I paid my money so they did the test and it worked, to everybody’s shock. I remember the engineer who was running the test rig. He called his colleagues in to watch the slow-motion video. When you compare how my homemade prototype worked with a traditionaly booster seat, the actual movements of the dummy was identical. The way they move forward and to the left a bit, and how the head goes forward and the arms fly up and the legs – you could see it was exactly the same.
I then took that to this designer and I said, “this works, but I can’t sell that. How can you make me something that people will think is a beautiful high-quality product?” He did a few series of drawings but very soon came to something that looks like the final product. That was 2013. Bear in mind, we didn’t actually ship the first one until the middle of 2016. It was incredibly complicated.
Tech Briefs: I would think, “How can something this light protect a child the way a full-sized booster seat does?”
Sumroy: One of the biggest challenges we’ve had has been getting people to accept that this is safe. Not necessarily the ultimate end user as a parent, but industry. We got a lot of criticism saying that can’t be safe, that’s dangerous. Don’t risk your child’s life. Even once we were selling it, it took a long time. We’ve only been going three years in the whole scheme of things. During that period, it took us a long time and a lot of effort to work with, in US, the Child Passenger Safety Technicians. These are people who are qualified to recommend to parents or caregivers the right products for their children in their vehicle. It took us a long time to work with that community to get them to understand that this was really a viable option.
Tech Briefs: It was officially introduced before you won the contest, so 2015?
Sumroy: Yes. We did a crowd-funding campaign in the summer of 2015. We hadn’t actually finished developing the product. We knew we were on the right track and we tested prototypes, and those prototypes showed us that the product could comply with all of the various regulatory standards. That’s the nature of crowd funding – you go to people with thoughts six, eight months before it would be ready. But it turned out it was about a year. We had this great idea with a really motivating, exciting movie. If you pre-order now, you’ll get a big discount off the price when it comes out.
I had raised money through venture capital, so as a business we weren’t doing the crowd funding to get money. We were doing it much more to get publicity. We’re again, in the days when journalists would write about an exciting crowd funding campaign because everybody wasn’t jaded. And also to get an idea of how many to manufacture. If you pre-sell 1,000, you’ll make 1,000. That was the idea. We thought we’d pre-sell around $100,000. That would have been 1,500 or so. It went mad.
We made nearly $3 million in the crowd funding campaign. It completely changed this whole project because at that time, there were three of us. For 18 months I’d been by myself, and then there were three of us. Suddenly we could grow the company because we’re sitting on all of this cash. It meant that we could finish the development much quicker than we thought. But it actually took us until March of 2016 to be able to ship in the US.