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How Did We Ever Take Care of Babies Without Robotics? (And Mechatronics!)

Celebrities love 4moms mechanized baby products, and so does your back. Does your wallet?

When it comes to buying baby gear, parents generally get what they pay for. Shelling out $700 for a luxury stroller buys you smooth operation and beautiful design, whether it’s a chassis pop-up Peg Perego, Orbit Baby, or a one-step fold UppaBaby Vista 2015. But now there is new option aiming to make all those look like umbrella strollers: robotics.

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Rob Daley

A company out of Pittsburgh called 4moms is cranking up a line of robotically engineered juvenile products. With six products and accessories on the market and another four rolling off the production line in 2015, 4moms hopes to make parents’ lives way easier than perhaps they deserve to be. If you’re a parent whose kid already grew out of infanthood, read on with jealousy.

First some, terms: 4moms products involve both mechatronics–that react to their users–and robotics, that take actions on their own. Introducing this electronic gadgetry to the baby crowd involves changing the perception that parents–some less tech inclined–have of robotic products. “This idea of humanoid robotics is really nothing more than a fantasy,” says Rob Daley, cofounder and CEO. Named for the moms who formed the first focus group, 4moms is working to put a user-friendly face on its robots.

the Origami Go

“To build a universal robotic machine adaptable as a human being is massively complicated, insanely expensive, and doesn’t solve real problems for people,” Daley says. “Instead we’re building a special-purpose machine that solves a very real problem for consumers.”

One special purpose any parent would love to outsource: folding and unfolding baby gear. Consider the Origami, a power-folding stroller that sells for $850, which the company points to as the pinnacle of its engineering. Push a button and it folds itself up. The battery charges as you stroll, powering nighttime running lights, a phone charger, an LCD monitor with an odometer and speedometer–in case speed becomes an issue–and a manual override, if you happen to be observing Shabbat. A lighter and less expensive version will be out soon, the Origami Go, at 16 pounds with the same one-touch button operation.

Also there to save your back and your sanity: the ridiculously easy-to-operate playard called the Breeze. (A playard is often referred to as “Pack ‘n’ Play,” which is the brand name for Graco’s product.) It opens and closes in two electronic seconds flat, no wrestling required. The company’s first car seat buckles into an anchor and proceeds to install itself and check that it is safe and sound.

The best seller is the mamaRoo, a novel bouncy seat that sways and rocks with a motion reminiscent of how parents hold their babies.

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the mamaRoo rocking

“As everyone knows, mothers don’t vibrate,” says Daley. Instead, the mamaRoo takes your kid on what looks like a very gentle jostling ride. The mamaRoo was designed by placing accelerometers on moms to measure their sway. It comes in five motions, including a car-ride mode, and has built-in nature sounds.

Having used the 4moms Origami, Breeze, and Clean Water Tub with real babies, I can attest that the hardest part about the products was pulling them out of the box. Are they worth the extra money you will pay? That answer depends on whether it settles your baby and keeps him or her happy.

“4moms is really on the forefront in leveraging high-power, low-cost components to do radical things in robotics,” says Daley. “When it comes to playards, the market leader is Graco’s Pack ‘n’ Play; it is a complete nightmare to open and close.” While I found this to be true, the playard was the only portable crib option parents had for many years so we accepted that, like many baby products, they can be frustrating and even temperamental until you have the knack for them.

Henry Thorne

4moms cofounder and CTO Henry Thorne is the inventive Geppetto of 4moms. A former GM engineer, he met Daley when he was on the prowl for money and Daley was working as a venture capitalist. Together they circled the idea of making products that exploited cheaper robotics.

Soon enough, Thorne was seeing his designs in tabloids, as celebrity parents like Natalie Portman, Dax Shepard, and the Kardashians toted their kids in them. “We knew the products were visually stunning and actresses would love to be seen with them,” says the designer, modestly. That they’d take to Twitter to recommend it? “We never guessed,” says Thorne, shaking his head.

In September 4moms announced a $41 million infusion from Castanea Partners with an additional investment from Bain Capital, a previous investor that had already chipped in $20 million. The investment will support the future growth of 4moms, which has doubled sales in each of the last four years and closed out 2013 at $30 million.

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The mamaRoo seat

4moms will move its 170 employees this November to 81,000 square-feet on two floors with floor-ceiling windows and a 180-degree view of the rivers and Pittsburgh skyline. Daley says open space will facilitate the company’s collaborative culture that brings development, IT, and marketing managers together.

“We do an insane amount of research on each product,” says Daley. He says the company relies on 80,000 product users who are registered as part of its Insider community to contribute ideas as well as feedback from Facebook. We are officially submitting our request for a robot diaper changer right now.

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