Hope, fear and inspiration
In 2012, Kurt Workman was a full-time chemical engineering major at Brigham Young University. Kurt’s aunt had just had twins, prematurely, so he and his wife were lending a helping hand whenever they could. They saw firsthand the constant worry Kurt’s aunt shouldered. They wanted to start a family of their own soon, but Kurt knew that with his wife’s congenital heart defects, they could face similar challenges and plenty of their own sleepless nights. In addition, Kurt’s cousin had previously lost a baby to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Around the same time, Kurt was exposed to a clinically proven technology used by hospitals called pulse oximetry through a friend who worked as a nurse at University of Utah Medical Center. A pulse oximeter is the clip-on device hospitals often put on a patient’s finger, which uses wavelengths of light to measure both heart rate and oxygen levels in the blood.
That was all the inspiration Kurt needed for the genesis of Owlet and its breakthrough product: the Smart Sock, a health monitor for newborns to wear at home, designed to notify parents if heart rate and oxygen levels fall outside preset zones, helping give anxious parents peace of mind. A coincidental run-in with fellow BYU student and electrical engineering major Zack Bomsta, himself a new dad, helped solidify the trajectory these budding entrepreneurs would take.
Together, Kurt and Zack, with their other co-founders, developed their idea, competing in and winning several competitions at BYU, including Student Innovator of the Year. With more recognition came more press and attention, including that of Avnet account manager Dianne Suggett. This is the story of how Avnet helped guide them and their idea to market.
Barriers that pop up overnight
The Owlet Smart Sock first went on sale in October 2015 on Owlet’s website. Today, it’s available on the shelves of Buy Buy Baby, with plans to be in other big-box retailers and appear internationally later this year. The journey from idea to high-volume production took three years of blood, sweat, tears and, ironically, some sleepless nights.
Trent Foster, an Avnet FAE (field application engineer), worked with Owlet during its early days in the product design phase.
“They had office space above a Chinese restaurant. We would meet on the roof. You could smell the food cooking and the roof was tilted, like it might cave in at any minute. We spent hours sitting at a lopsided plastic picnic table, drawing out circuits on notepads.”
Today, Owlet co-founder Zack is the company’s CTO (chief technology officer). He remembers those days well.
“People gave us a million reasons why we couldn’t get the Smart Sock to market. Luckily, we were naïve enough to ignore them. I don’t think any of us could fully grasp the design challenges of what we were trying to do when we set out. Not only were we trying to create an IoT device, which, in its own right, is hard, but we were trying to create a device using clinically proven technology. On top of that, it was a wearable that had to stay on a baby’s foot, which can quadruple in size in the first year.”
“In our journey, new barriers seemed to pop up overnight. We had to find creative ways to overcome them and Avnet has been involved since the early days in helping us do that.”
A solution with its own challenges. Avnet helped to mitigate the risks.
One of those barriers came about a year into development. The Owlet team had assumed that the sensor module on the baby’s foot could send data straight to a smartphone through Bluetooth. But further testing uncovered range constraints and communication reliability issues.
With delivery dates promised to early backers rapidly approaching, the team realized they needed a dedicated Base Station – a go-between that communicated with both the sensor and the smartphone. With that realization came major implications.
“Up until that point, we were planning on using the phone and all the conveniences that come with piggybacking off a smart device, and we no longer had those conveniences. So, late in the game, we’re rushing to figure out how we’re going to make this Wi-Fi-connected Base Station work. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of stress at that time, but this is where Avnet really came to bat for us,” remembers Zack.
“In the product development process, a lot of times, it feels like you’re in a dark room with a dim flashlight, stumbling around and looking for the right path. When you have Avnet come in with their experience and knowledge and industry experts, they’re able to really turn on a bright light in that room and say hey, this is the path you want to take.”
Zack Bomsta, Owlet Co-founder/CTO
As the team was frantically trying to identify the right Wi-Fi chip set, Avnet introduced them to another start-up that happened to be developing just the module Owlet needed.
“At that time, we didn’t have any cash to throw at buying inventory and Avnet was able to step up and help us get the inventory and work out the logistics with both the chip-set developer and their contract manufacturer, so that we could get those parts delivered to us. Avnet was the glue that held all of it together,” said Zack.
Kurt, now the CEO of Owlet, sums up Avnet’s critical role as a “Sherpa” of sorts.
“Avnet recognized that we had a huge mountain we wanted to climb. And they said we’re going toguideyou guys and figure out whatever it is that you need to get up this mountain,” said Kurt.
Their Avnet FAE Trent said, “Their goal was to make a difference in the world. That’s what they wanted to do. Seeing them do that … that’s the most rewarding part, for me and everyone else at Avnet.”
Added Zack, “A mentor once told me, ‘If you knew what it was going to take at the start, you wouldn’t start.’ And I think that’s true. But the reality is the journey has been awesome and making a real difference in the world is totally worth it.”
Dianne, the account manager who made the first contact between Avnet and Owlet, brings an Owlet Smart Sock to every baby shower she goes to. Adds Dianne, “I’m just thrilled…we all are. To have played a role in their success.”
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1 Owlet customer satisfaction survey results