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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Three-year incubation results in a smart car seat

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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Every new parent has sweated through the same hour of frustration, cursing, and concern: leaning into the family vehicle to install an infant car seat for the first time. A small number decide to trek to a neighborhood police or fire station to have someone more experienced do the work.

Yet there are scads of terrifying stories about infants injured in car seats that didn’t stay put in a crash. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that roughly 75 percent of car seats are not installed properly.

A Woonsocket, R.I., company, Summer Infant Inc., started thinking about that problem three years ago. It wanted to develop a car seat that would be foolproof for a novice to install properly.

Like a first-time parent, Summer Infant didn’t quite know what it was leaping into. Though the company was 25 years old - offering products that ranged from baby bouncers to video monitors to high chairs - it had never designed a car seat.

“We just felt it was an unmet need, since people install even the best car seats incorrectly,’’ says chief executive Jason Macari. He bought the company in 2001, just as it was veering toward bankruptcy, and in the decade since has expanded it to $200 million in revenue and 225 employees. “But we definitely underestimated the time and manpower and investment necessary to do this.’’

The infant car seat, dubbed the Prodigy, features sensors and a liquid crystal display that walks you through the three-step installation process and provides feedback on the way.

It’s a first in the industry, says Kecia Healy, a child passenger safety instructor who writes for The Car Seat Blog. “There’s so much technology in other aspects of our daily lives, it’s almost like, why did it take somebody so long to think of this?’’ Healy says.

But creating a simple product can be incredibly complex.

One of the first things the design team did was buy about 50 types of car seats. Team members tried installing them in their own cars and those of other employees. Even people with experience found the process frustrating.

Bill St. Pierre, a vice president at Summer, remembered seeing an inflight animation on a trip to Asia that explained passenger safety procedures. That gave him an idea. “We were talking about doing a color animation of a mom installing the car seat,’’ he says, “like a how-to video.’’

But the designers decided the process would be even easier to understand if they created icons for the three installation steps (latching a seat’s plastic base to the car, getting it leveled, and tightening the straps). So they did. A green smiley face lights up when each step is completed, and a red exclamation point glows if something is wrong. “We really tried to minimize the amount of text,’’ says St. Pierre.

Most car seats require installers to yank on a seat belt strap to ensure that the base won’t budge. Summer created a novel ratchet-and-spool mechanism that makes it easy to cinch the belt tight. But safety advocates worried it might damage the fabric of the seat belt. So Summer collected data about what would happen if the seat was installed and tightened twice a day, every day, for seven years. It showed no wear on the seat belt.

Everything the team did had to conform to federal safety guidelines that govern restraints for children. By St. Pierre’s estimate, the designers built 40 or 50 prototypes and partial prototypes, thinking about the safety parameters, the cost to manufacture, and the need for the seat to perform well years after it was sold, St. Pierre says.

Among the names considered: IQ, Virtuoso, Smart Seat, and Cocoon. Prodigy “resonated with us based on our intent to build a smarter car seat,’’ says Cynthia Barlow, director of marketing communications.

Macari cut a deal with Babies R Us, the biggest baby products retailer in the United States, to sell the seat exclusively for the first year. In return, he says, “they agreed to invest more in advertising and public relations than they would have otherwise.’’

The relationship also involved hashing out the Prodigy’s price with the retail chain. “There definitely was some back and forth,’’ says Macari. At $179 for the base and car seat ($299 with a stroller), “it’s at the high end of the mass retail price range.’’

“We certainly think it should have been at a higher price point - it’s the most sophisticated car seat on the market - but we also didn’t want to sell a few thousand.’’

The Prodigy was unveiled with a splash last September, at the annual ABC Kids Expo. Summer announced that it would go on sale in January of this year.

But in late 2010, the company had to tell Babies R Us that it wouldn’t be ready. “We didn’t feel we’d adequately tested the life cycle of the product,’’ says Macari.

Last week, Summer was back at the ABC show, this time announcing that the Prodigy was on its way to Babies R Us stores. The product won one of 10 Innovation Awards at the event.

How will it fare against seats from more-established rivals, such as Graco, Britax, and Canton-based Safety 1st? “We think that innovation and features and benefits can be a trump card over brand,’’ says Barlow.

Healy, the safety instructor and blogger, says that the $179 price point is reasonable. “But will America trust Summer Infant with their baby’s life under the worst possible circumstances? That’s a leap of faith,’’ she says. “But this is a standout product. It’s not just another baby carrier.’’

Another question is whether parents will purchase the Prodigy even though it can’t be attached to some of the more popular high-end strollers.

Macari estimates that Summer, which is publicly traded, invested $3 million to $5 million developing the Prodigy.

“Over time, I think our investment will be paid back, but it may take a little longer than we’re used to,’’ he says.

What if he were shown the investment numbers and timeline today, and asked to decide whether to green-light the project?

“I might put it off,’’ he says. “It was definitely more difficult than I would’ve guessed.’’

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