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Innovation Economy

In this case, thinking inside the box pays off

A BabbaBox is a collection of activities geared to 3- to 6-year-olds. A BabbaBox is a collection of activities geared to 3- to 6-year-olds.
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2011

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Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

BabbaCo, a Chicago start-up that targets parents of young children, moved to Boston this month, the result of a long-running development initiative that brings talented people to the Bay State: The founder’s spouse landed a job at a Boston hospital.

Jessica Kim raised $1.2 million for the company last month, and the very first of its BabbaBoxes was shipped last week.

A BabbaBox is a collection of activities geared to 3- to 6-year-olds.

“The concept is that we work with preschool educators to select what goes in and develop activities, and the boxes will be customized to the age of your child,’’ Kim said.

A single box costs $30; an annual subscription is $300. Kim is in Boston, but five employees work from Chicago.

The sample box had an insect theme. It included craft materials to make a ladybug and a butterfly. There was a plastic magnifying jar, intended for collecting bugs and inspecting them, and a hardcover book called “Earl the Earthworm Digs for His Life.’’

There were coloring sheets about butterflies and an iTunes Store credit for a specific app, Paint My Wings, that works on iPads or iPhones. Plus, there’s always a small gift inside for the mom. This box had lip balm from Burt’s Bees.

“We include everything you need for the activities, too,’’ Kim said. “I’m a busy mom, and I hate the ‘batteries not included’ thing.’’

Kim has two children, 4 1/2 and 19 months.

Kim has been having conversations with Boston-area venture capitalists. “We know competitors are coming out, so I’ve been talking to a couple VCs now, just to know what our options are,’’ she said.

Web-based trash pickups
If you live in Boston, you have probably used BigBelly Solar’s product: stout-looking trash receptacles with a solar panel on top. When the can is about half full, a compactor smashes it down, using solar power. The company says BigBelly compactors can hold four to five times the trash of a typical can, so they don’t need to be emptied as often, saving money. More than 12,000 of the cans dot Philadelphia, Chicago, and the campuses of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University.

Perhaps realizing that recurring revenues are better than one-time sales, the company is repositioning itself. BigBelly is integrating wireless connectivity into its trash and recycling cans, which allows them to report their status to a Web-based software system. The company has dubbed it a “smart grid for waste and recycling.’’ By sending crews to empty only the receptacles that need it, BigBelly says it can eliminate at least seven of every 10 pick-up trips.

“I come out of the networking world, so for me, these devices are nodes in a network,’’ said chief executive Barry Fougere, the former CEO of Colubris Networks, a wireless start-up acquired by HP. “Our customers at BigBelly are not used to having information. Are my guys doing their job? Where do we have problems with cans that are over-full, and trash is blowing everywhere? We give them that.’’

Looking at data for Philadelphia - BigBelly’s largest customer - Fougere showed that 29 of 893 networked compactors were red (should be emptied immediately), and 145 were yellow (almost full). BigBelly’s software also shows if a door is open or if maintenance is needed. The sanitation department used to swing by some trash cans 17 times a week; now, the average is 2.5.

The technology isn’t cheap. Leasing 10 systems that include a trash compactor and recycling container is about $1,000 a month, Fougere said, and purchasing them would be about $60,000, including a five-year software license.

The company has nearly 1,000 BigBelly cans in Eastern Massachusetts; most are not yet linked to the wireless network.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation.