Inspiration arrives in unexpected ways.
Thirteen years ago, Jonathan Klinger came home from work to find his wife, Julianne, in the living room of their home in Cambridge, England. She was holding a CD player and had big earmuff-sized headphones strapped to her pregnant belly.
More than a decade later, the couple's baby-tech startup has gone through loads of research, engineering, testing, relocation and risk-taking. After several prototypes, securing a patent and winning the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Innovation Fund of America prize (a "Shark Tank"-like competition) in the form of a $100,000 interest-free loan, Mbrio Pregnancy Earbud Adapters hit the market in June 2019, and they're getting noticed.
The adapters, which transform regular earbuds into pregnancy headphones, garnered an Instagram shout-out from supermodel Ashley Graham to her almost 10 million followers, blurbs in People and Us Weekly magazines, online coverage on lifestyle sites including PopSugar, and a rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
Having an idea, designing the product, manufacturing it and establishing a company around it are daunting tasks. Jonathan and Julianne Klinger merged their experience — his in engineering, hers in marketing — to create earbud adapters that clip to a pregnant mom's waistband. They're made of safe, quality materials in an ergonomic shape. Decibel level and frequency testing was performed by a nationally registered lab.
"I'd heard about playing music to my unborn baby from my mom and sister," Julianne said. "It wasn't a new concept, and after my midwife suggested it, I decided to give it a try. I thought I could go to the store and pick something up. All I found were bulky speakers that required adhesives or straps and splitters or adapters. That got us thinking that there must be a better way."
Jonathan, raised in England, is an engineer with a graduate business degree from France. Julianne, raised in the Midwest, has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where the two met through a mutual friend.
Together, the couple moved often, following their jobs. Jonathan worked in marketing and product innovation for large corporations, while Julianne worked in advertising and marketing for a large Fortune 100 company.
"We kept thinking that playing music for our baby shouldn't be a different experience than playing music for ourselves. It should be seamless and use things we already had," Julianne said.
Three months after their first child was born, Jonathan's work took them to New York. Design began with a trip to Walgreens and CVS, where they bought everyday products, including things with plastic clips, gel shoe inserts and other items that would attenuate sound.
As an engineer, Jonathan had two questions. "One was: How do you make the sound safe for the baby? And the second is: How do you hold it to the mom's belly without harnesses or sticky stuff? The first sketch was literally drawn on the back of an envelope.
"We made several iterations," he added, "and by the time we got close to the final prototype, we searched to see if anyone had done anything like it. No one in the world had, so we applied for and received a patent. No one can legally copy it."
After having another child and moving to Cleveland a few years ago, the Klingers were nearing the home stretch. They discovered Sears think [box], a public-access innovation center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Engineering.
"They have a phenomenal 3D printer that we could use for free," Jonathan said. "Unlike many 3D printers that only produce items in hard plastic, this printer allows you to model the squishiness of the piece."
"We gave prototypes to local pregnant moms to try," added Julianne, who named the company Mbrio. They also commissioned Suzy.com, a market research company, to carry out an online survey of 500 pregnant moms across the U.S. to confirm attitudes about the benefits of prenatal music and interest in their product.
The couple also discovered the JumpStart Inc. nonprofit accelerator, which provided mentoring, networking and ongoing support before, during and after the grant application through Glide (Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise) for the Innovation Fund of America prize and the product's launch.
The final product, which looks as sleek as anything hanging on the wall of an Apple Store, meets the standards put out by the CDC and the National Institution for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It's made of medical-grade silicone and a plastic clip that are joined without screws or glue but using split, flanged pegs. When it came to finding a manufacturer, Jonathan says that many turned the product down due to the complicated design.
"It was our choice to be this concerned about product safety. I've been through this with other products," said Jonathan, who left his full-time job two years ago. Through his contacts, he chose a high-quality, tier-one manufacturer in Asia to make the two components.
The next step, he added, became equally important.
"The organization that assembles the product and the packaging is a nonprofit based in Norwalk called CLI Supports," he said. "It provides paid employment to adults with developmental disabilities. They assemble the silicone to the clip and package the finished product. We also have the graphics done locally and use Ohio suppliers. Many are women-owned businesses."
"We could use suppliers from around the world," Julianne said. "We could have the graphic design done elsewhere, anyone could do our fulfillment, but we feel the community has given us so much, we love Cleveland and we want to give back."
She manages engagement with influencers and moms through Instagram. "That was a big part of this for us," she said. "Who we are in terms of bringing this product to light is also about who we are as parents. We left our lives in large corporations to do this a certain way. It might have taken us a little longer, it might cost us more, but there is integrity in it and that's the only way we wanted to do it. We came into it launching a product for pregnant women, but the richness has been the lives of these women we've gotten to know and remain in touch with. That's been the jewel of the whole thing."
As for additional items from Mbrio, Julianne said, "We're thinking of the next product as we consider the community and their needs."
Mbrio Pregnancy Earbud Adapters fit earbuds by Apple, including wireless AirPods, Samsung and Google Pixel. They're available in white or aqua, sell for $30 and can be purchased at mbriotech.com and on Amazon. For additional reviews and images see mbriotech on Instagram.