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.
Tech Briefs: Where was it being manufactured at that point?
Sumroy: In China – we’ve always manufactured in China. We originally chose it because it seems small and simple, but it’s quite a manual process. Even today, manual labor is just much, much more cost-effective over there. I had been introduced to somebody who happened to own a factory in China who has been a great partner through the development of everything we’ve done since.
We launched in March-April 2016 in the US but it took us until July-August to get the regulatory approval for the rest of the world. The US has a different standard than most other countries. Then I think in September was when we found out we won in the Create the Future contest.
I think there’s real credibility to what you guys do. You must know this. There are dozens, hundreds of contests where you go online, you pay your $250, you end up on page 3,000 of some brochure of award winners. It’s nice – you can put it on your website or even on the packaging, for example.
For us, we just started. We were having a lot of hassles with online vitriol from very well-meaning and passionate people that care about child passenger safety who didn’t understand this. I think it’s just the nature of things. Maybe even worse today than a few years ago. People not bothering to find out; just stating their opinions. You always find you sound defensive. I hear what you’re writing, but it’s not right. Nobody reads the comments to the statement. They just read...and then all of a sudden, we got this award and we felt great. It gave us credibility.
We were a company with maybe four or five people at the time. By the time it was November, we’re a small startup, and all of a sudden, we can talk about this award. I think on our journey, the timing of you giving us that award was really helpful.
Tech Briefs: That leads to my next question on what the recognition of the award did for the company.
Sumroy: We approached selling the product just in the most traditional way that people sell car seats, because it’s the low-hanging fruit. Everybody’s looking for car seats on Amazon and Target and Walmart and Buy-Buy Baby. I always knew the opportunity for this was really where people didn’t necessarily look for car seats. We were very travel-oriented. The number-one reason people still buy this is because they’re going on vacation and it’s convenient to carry and handle and it’s much cheaper than renting a booster seat from a rental car company. That’s the trigger. Then the kids love it and they go buy two more.
The first one gets put in a bag and carried around. The next one they buy goes in the glove box, so if there’s a friend of your child coming out of school, you’ve got a spare seat, and the third one is for grandparents. That’s what’s our research shows. But because of travel, unusual sales opportunities like duty-free shops in airports was one that we’ve had some success in. There are three airlines – Lufthansa, Café Pacific, and El Al – on which you can buy them from the onboard magazines or even on the trolley in some cases. Most of the well-known car rental companies aren’t interested because they would lose money by selling these.
Tech Briefs: Not too long after winning the award, you announced the taxi and ride share partnership.
Sumroy: Yes, that’s right. We’ve got one interesting small company in the UK that’s a rental car company that puts these in every car. Then taxis and fleets. Even today, three years later, we still don’t have enough of a focus on these alternative channels. I’m doing a round of fundraising at the moment for growth financing. Part of it is because we’ve kind of proved we can do this. Now we want to supercharge the growth of the business by really going where none of our competitors can sell products. Grab is the biggest ride hailing app in Asia – I think it’s Uber’s biggest competitor in the world today. They approached us and said they’d like to put some of these in their cars, specifically in Singapore.
We did a few trials with them that weren’t successful. What we worked out was if you put them in 100 cars out of however many tens of thousands there are, people will choose those cars, but they won’t wait for them. If they can get a car that will turn up three minutes, but to get one with a car seat would take eight minutes, they wouldn’t wait. What triggered the success was we persuaded them and they bought the seats to try in 1,000 cars in a concentrated area. All of a sudden, they saw this massive response, which was people would choose it and use it and like it. There was like a network, a snowball effect. It helped them compete against Uber because we had said for the trial period, we’d give them exclusivity. They then came to us and said, “okay, we want to put them in 10,000 cars.” This was in 2017.
First of all, we designed one especially for them. It comes with a little co-branded bag. It’s their color, has their own design, their logo on the cushion. Every year since, they’ve come back and ordered another 10,000 . For us, 30,000 Grab co-branded seats. We also now have a fleet in Belgium. Brussels’ biggest taxi company has a few thousand. In California, there’s a wonderful company called Hop-Skip-Drive, which is Uber for kids. It’s all about after school activities. All of the drivers tend to be parents who are driving their own kids. They have a checklist so they can be confident that they’re going to be safe. I think we’re a few thousand seats with them as well.
What’s interesting is I had the idea for this because of my kids basically being in carpooling and taxis and rental cars and things like that. Actually, we’re kind of living through a personal transportation revolution today. I saw some statistics and especially among millennials, who are now older and having children. You would expect them to be buying their own cars, and they’re not. The number of households with cars in the US is decreasing for the first time in 100 years because people are choosing to use cars rather than buy them.
With people using cars rather than owning them, the car seat has to stay with the child, not with the car. If the car seat has to stay with the child, it can’t be big. It’s taken us three years to really understand this, but the opportunity for the business, which is all about compact and portable child restraints, is this transportation revolution. If we’re going to have fleets of autonomous vehicles just roaming around and we’ll jump in and out of them, you’re going to need to protect children in those cars. Nobody is focusing on it.
Tech Briefs: It’s a very practical idea. You don’t want to have to take a big car seat out of one car and put it into another.
Sumroy: I talk to lots of people about it. It’s a problem. We’ve kind of enabled this transportation evolution for parents. We measure a few things in the business. One is awareness. This year we’re up to 13% awareness among American parents of caregivers of children aged 3+. Graco is at 90% awareness. They’ve had a long time in the industry. What’s so interesting is our market share – it’s difficult to get market share data, but we believe we’ve got 6-7% market share.
If somebody goes on Amazon to find a car seat and types in Graco, they can still choose an identical product from every other manufacturer because everybody is selling the same thing; just a different color, shape, size, price, or whatever. If somebody wants a compact portable seat, we’re really the only solution, so the driver of my business is to generate awareness. It’s not to put an advertisement on Amazon when people are searching for it. People already know what they want. We have to get out there and tell people, “you’ve got a problem because you’re carrying a big bulky booster seat through an airport. We’ve not got the solution.”
Tech Briefs: How have you been getting the word out?
Sumroy: We’re almost exclusively digital. In terms of marketing, we invest most of our money in Facebook, Instagram, and Google. Then Amazon – in fact, they are our biggest customer.
Tech Briefs: You must have had to ramp up manufacturing pretty quickly if you’re selling 10,000 seats at a time.
Sumroy: What was interesting was we had started preparing...the manufacturing has got two elements to it. We have to make all the components, then we have to assemble it. Assembly is actually the most flexible because you can put on ten people or 20 or 30. But manufacturing the pieces is where you’ve got to really plan in advance. When we started doing the crowd funding campaign, we’d forecasted a certain level of sales.
When this crowd funding campaign went mad, we realized we had massively under-forecasted the quantity we’re going to have to make. It looks like a regular plastic, but it’s actually a very sophisticated super tough plastic polymer only made by DuPont. It’s called Delrin 100ST. We are now the number-one user of Delrin 100ST in the world.
The molds for this are quite sophisticated because it’s actually a very thick single piece of plastic. In the most forceful tests that we’ve done, these can bend up completely. We could not find the material that didn’t break. I used to be literally almost in tears when we’d prepare a whole load of samples and every single one of them: snap, snap, snap. Then somebody came up with this suggestion. We tried it and it worked. But we hadn’t made enough molds to make the arms in the quantities that we needed. We really did lag behind. Once we realized it, we put in place capacity to make 100,000 seats a year. When we came out through that process, we could make 600,000 a year. But that was a problem, making the components.
Tech Briefs: After the original, you came up with mifold Sport?
Sumroy: The whole point of mifold Sport is to have something more luxurious. We modeled it on the seat cushion of a Porsche. It has a kind of aluminum style surrounded in a tire tread. We sell it in Nordstroms, which is our US outlet. It was one of those things where we said, “what’s the ultimate version of mifold we can make?” It’s more expensive, and it’s a lot more time-consuming in terms of labor.
Tech Briefs: Tell us about hifold.
Sumory: Europe is a high-back booster seat market. There is no science that can prove that a high-back booster is any safer than a backless one. I know it doesn’t make sense, because you think if you got a backrest and headrest and a side collision, it’s bound to be more effective. In the lab, you can prove that it is but in real life, there’s absolutely no difference. But you can’t change people’s beliefs. We always knew that this range of products was very much focused to North American and Asia, which are big markets. We sell nicely in Europe but under-perform for the size of the European market.
hifold weighs under 10 pounds. The reason to buy it isn’t because it folds up and it’s compact. The reason to buy it is that it is the most adjustable high-back booster ever invented, we think. It’s got nine heights. Something like children 35 inches up to 59 inches tall can be accommodated with this. As well as having height settings, each of these areas has got three width settings: narrow, medium and wide. On the back, the same thing.
It’s not a gimmick – it really does have two main benefits. One is, it’s more comfortable. If you’re small and everything is snug, it’s a more comfortable seat. You’re not falling over. The other thing is, there are some kids that are tall and thin. Most booster seats adjust the height and some adjust the width. Normally they’re correlated as you lift up the height, the width changes. If you are short and wide, you can do it. With this, you can have kids with wide shoulders and narrow hips or wide hips and narrow shoulders, and everything in between.
The seatbelt’s always optimally positioned over the top of the thighs against the pelvis on the bone. You want the belt on the bones because that’s the strongest point of the body. All of the adjustability makes it more comfortable and gives you an optimum seatbelt fit.
Tech Briefs: So you’re not having to buy a tiny seat when the child’s very little, and then have to replace it as the child grows.
Sumroy: Correct. This is still a booster seat, so this is still using vehicle seatbelt. With mifold, we say from the age of four and up. With this one, we’ve done something quite unique for the industry, which is we haven’t given any age indication whatsoever. We’ve basically said you’ve got a minimum and a maximum weight and height, and you should move your child into this seat when they are mature enough – when a child can sit properly for the whole journey, meaning they won’t slouch down. There might be a 3-year-old who’s not ready yet. So I could say from age 5, and there could be a 5-year-old who’s not ready yet. You know your child better than anybody else. If they’re mature enough to sit properly for the whole journey, then this is for them.
When they’ve outgrown the five-point harness, I think this is now the best possible product. You can fold this up in a few little clicks and fasten its straps so this all holds itself together. Then you can just carry it around. You can put it in the overhead bin on an airplane.
Tech Briefs: Are there plans to do anything other than car seats? Is that going to be your focus for a while?
Sumroy: We look at this as a management team now. We’re about folding. We can fold lots of things. We’re about juvenile products. I’m sure maybe there’s a stroller or a cot or a baby bath, and we keep coming back to the single-minded focus for now on compact and portable car seats because there are still at least 25% of journeys where kids don’t use a car seat because they’re not available. Our next idea we’ll probably introduce over the next two years or so, would be an infant seat. From one to 3, 4, 5, when they have to have a five-point harness; that task is going to be tough.
To do that, the regulations are much more stringent. You have to attach the seat to the car. The exciting thing we’re going to crack is how can we do that and give parents the compact portable. We’ve got a lot to still do in car seats. We like to do things that are protective as well. I don’t want to be just competing with people on color and design and price and marketing, because I don’t think we can afford that. We manage to survive as a small company with relatively low marketing budgets because what we sell is unique and different.
Tech Briefs: Currently there’s no competitor that does something similar to mifold?
Sumroy: No. Graco launched a couple of products in the last two years that are folding. They haven’t been successful. In China mostly, we just see blatant ripoffs. In fact, we made a video for some of our Asia distributors called Don’t Buy Fakes, where we bought them and tested them. They were lethal. Literally, you could pick one up and just rip it apart. Then we showed bits flying off in crash tests.
Tech Briefs: Is there a regulatory system there?
Sumroy: There’s no regulatory requirements to use them in China. There is no law to use car seats. The people who are copying us, they don’t care whether there’s laws or not. They see an opportunity. They’re called ifolds.
Tech Briefs: Isn’t that patent infringement?
Sumroy: Yes, it’s very, very tough. We’ve got good patents. This is how we’re approaching it. Every time we see them, it costs us lots of money to get them taken down. If we ever see them leaking out into the rest of the world, we put all of our efforts onto them. We’ve been very successful. Amazon is putting a lot of effort into stopping that.
If you go onto eBay and type in mifold, you’ll see lots of these fakes. It’s very expensive to do anything about it. It’s a big drain on management time and effort to deal with them. I do feel for parents relying on these seats to save their kids in a collision because they won’t. As a team, people write to us and tell us “you saved my child’s life.”
Tech Briefs: You have some of those testimonials on your website.
Sumroy: Someone telling you, “you saved my kid’s life today” is wonderful. That’s why I love it.
What do you think? Share your comments and questions below.
For more information on the full line of mifold products, go to www.mifold.com .