- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

Susan Dunk’s inspiration began with a nap.

Mrs. Dunk’s two toddlers often fell asleep in the car. Mrs. Dunk, who lives in Potomac Falls, Va., would look in the rearview mirror and wince at the way their little heads were slumped over. Not only does that look uncomfortable, she thought, it can’t be good for the neck muscles or spine.

“I thought that there certainly had to be a product to help keep their heads supported,” she says.

So off she went to the usual stores that sell children’s products. Some items came close to what Mrs. Dunk sought but were not quite perfect. That’s when she cut some fabric, glued it together and stuffed the bolster with old tube socks.

Eureka, a business was born. Three years later, Mrs. Dunk holds a patent and has sold about 30,000 Toddler Coddlers — large, soft, hypoallergenic bolsters that attach to the car’s headrest to offer full support around the car seat. The bolsters are now mass-manufactured in China, and Mrs. Dunk has a wealth of information about licensing, manufacturing, marketing and the process of inventing. It is a full-time job for her and her husband, John.

“So many of us think we’re ‘just moms,’” Mrs. Dunk says, “but we are on the front lines of what is going on with children.”

Never has the old saw “Necessity is the mother of invention” been more true than for a mom looking for a way to keep a pacifier off the ground (a clip for baby’s shirt), a way to support a 6-month-old learning how to sit up (the Boppy pillow) or a way to distract and comfort an injured child (the Boo-Boo Bunny). Even the disposable diaper was invented when an innovative mom cut up a shower curtain to stop diaper leaks.

Tamara Monosoff’s creative moment came after her toddler, Sophia, repeatedly pulled all the toilet paper off the roll, messing up the bathroom, clogging the toilet and, of course, annoying her mother.

Ms. Monosoff, a former Clinton administration staffer who now lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., fashioned a childproof lock for the toilet paper. She sketched out the idea on notepaper and fashioned a prototype using perm rods from a beauty supply store.

Ms. Monosoff got the TP Saver manufactured and marketed, and now she heads Mom Inventors Inc., a group that helps other parent inventors get their products started.

“When you find yourself saying, ‘I wish there was a …’” then you have an idea,” she says. “Get a computer, get into stores, do your homework. Find out if people will buy it.”

Inspired dads

Mike Cravens’ idea was more of a concept. After his son, Ethan, was born in 2000, he became more attuned to what parents were saying. The former Marine Corps sergeant and AOL executive listened to parents gripe about the lack of responsible baby sitters.

“There was one teenager on my street,” says Mr. Cravens, who lives in Loudoun County. “And she was booked for months. So I had this idea to help myself and help other parents.”

That’s when Mr. Cravens founded Babysitters.com, which matches parents and sitters nationwide. The site has about 18,000 sitters and has helped about 40,000 parents, he says.

Babysitters.com does initial screening, but ultimately, the parents must decide which sitter is right for them, he adds.

On the other side of the country, Erik Monrad’s back was aching. Mr. Monrad, a stay-at-home dad from Berkeley, Calif., is 6 feet 2 inches tall. Taking his young daughter out for a stroll, he realized he was hunched over and needed two hands to maneuver the stroller.

To save his back — and be able to hold a cup of coffee when he strolled — Mr. Monrad invented the Stroller Stretcher, a handle that enables parents to push easily with one hand and stand up straight. He built the first one out of bicycle parts and PVC pipe, then had it manufactured professionally. He took it to the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association’s annual trade show, where it was honored as one of the top 10 new products of 2004.

The Stroller Stretcher sells at places such as Target.com and the Right Start for $14.95. Mr. Monrad has sold about 7,000 handles. He makes a profit of about $3 per piece — not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme, but not a money loser, either.

“This is a wonderful job,” Mr. Monrad says. “I think this product is doing pretty well, but most people want products that make your baby safer or smarter.”

Getting on the shelves

The most intimidating part of the invention process is getting a great idea to the people.

Ms. Monosoff estimates she spent $20,000 researching and developing the TP Saver.

“I realize now I didn’t know how to save money,” she says.

Ms. Monosoff, author of the book “The Mom Inventors Handbook: How To Turn Your Great Idea Into the Next Big Thing,” says one common misconception is that you must get a patent.

“People equate inventing with patenting,” she says. “Patenting shouldn’t be the first step. Patents are great, but they won’t totally protect you. Patents can cost $5,000 for a simple one. Why not spend that money on a complete manufacturing run?”

Laine Caspi, founder of Parents of Invention, a company that helps bring innovative parenting products to market, says a parent with a good idea should never pay to have a product developed.

Firms such as Mom Inventors and Parents of Invention accept ideas for a small slice of the royalties — from about 3 percent to 5 percent.

Ms. Caspi, a mother of two and a former suicide crisis counselor, got started less than three years ago when she discovered the Ultimate Baby Wrap, a comfortable infant carrier, on a trip to Israel. She proceeded to manufacture and market the carriers in the United States.

Parents of Invention represents eight products. Ms. Caspi says she gets several hundred idea submissions a month.

“All of our products have to solve a problem,” she says.

However, Ms. Caspi admits not all ideas will sell.

“I can’t say whether something is a good idea or a bad one,” she says. “But we once had a product pitch for a straitjacket for babies so they won’t get dirty.”

Says Ms. Monosoff: “It is hard for me to say what is a bad idea when you see things like the Pet Rock.”

Ms. Monosoff and Mom Inventors are still marketing the TP Saver as well as other products, including Good Bites (crustless sandwich cookie cutters), Shoes Clues (stickers that help teach children left from right), and Tinkle Targets, which help boys aim during toilet training.

“Moms problem-solve night and day,” Ms. Monosoff says. “I want other women to know they can make money on their ideas.”

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