BRUNSWICK — A local business is one of 15 finalists in a nationwide competition for entrepreneurs who develop products that enhance the lives of women and families.
Whitney and Seabren Reeves, the husband-and-wife owners of Bitzy Baby, will travel to Washington, D.C., next month to pitch their product in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER Business Challenge.
Bitzy Baby’s signature product is a safe crib bumper, complete with mesh siding to reduce the risk of carbon dioxide rebreathing and suffocation, cushioning against crib slats, and inserts that are collapsible to a climbing child.
The Reeves, lifelong Mainers and Brunswick residents since 2006, said they did not start out thinking about growing a company.
Whitney worked as an elementary school teacher in Harpswell for 10 years, and Seabren works in information technology. The pursuit of the patent on their crib bumper started for reasons more personal than profitable.
They were planning on having their first child when they started doing a lot of research around safe sleeping.
“I was a high-risk pregnancy,” Whitney said Wednesday. “I would look at crib bumpers, and I would think, ‘these are all I have for choices?’ There are not a lot of options. … (The crib) is the place your child goes every night, so you have to have confidence.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, or ASSB, is the leading cause of infant injury and death in the country. Factors that lead to this include suffocation by soft bedding, or strangulation when an infant’s head is trapped between crib slats.
Traditional crib bumper designs do not adequately address ASSB, Whitney said.
The Reeves started toying with safer crib bumper designs, which eventually led them to wonder if there was a patent on an alternative crib bumper design.
“I have a teacher’s mindset, so when there’s a problem, I want to address it,” Whitney said.
They received a utility patent on their crib bumper in 2013, and then started an Internet crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to begin developing it.
Whitney said the initial designs for the crib were drawn in crayon on the side of a bathtub.
“Bath time was Bitzy time,” she said. While the kids were distracted in the tub, Whitney and Seabren would brainstorm on the porcelain, and the word “Bitzy” is still written on the tub.
Bitzy Baby’s logo is based on crayon sketches from the Reeves’ bathtub. Their children are now 6 and 4, and their younger child grew up sleeping in the crib bumper prototype.
Seabren said Brunswick has been key to their initial success.
“There’s a lot of resources we’ve leveraged in Maine,” he said. “… There’s a lot out there that can support you.”
Soon after their Indiegogo campaign, the couple won a $25,000 seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute in Brunswick to create the plastic mesh that forms the interior of the bumper, and to do a sales test run.
The Maine Manufacturers Association also helped the Reeves identify a manufacturer in Lewiston to develop the prototypes.
Seabren said the product got another boost after it was tested against the American Academy of Pediatrics’ baseline for safe sleeping standard: An independent breathability testing group found that Bitzy Baby’s product has 30 times less suffocation risk and 10 times less carbon dioxide rebreathing risk.
As for entering their product into SBA’s InnovateHER challenge, “it kind of fell into our hands,” Whitney said.
After Bitzy Baby’s fundraising campaign, they were identified by the Startup America Partnership, which was launched at the White House, as a Startup America company.
For the past eight weeks, the Reeves have been participating in a business development program under Startup Portland, a division of Startup America. They heard from multiple sources there about the InnovateHER competition.
“The aims of the competition are exactly the tenets of our company,” Seabren said. “It was a really good fit because we were already doing exactly what the competition was looking for.”
Bitzy Baby was selected from 75 semifinalists from all over the country, and will pitch its product to a panel of judges on May 8. Finalists will compete for the top three awards, and a total of $30,000 provided by Microsoft.
On Monday, Bitzy Baby was also recognized in a joint press release from Maine U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins. “We are very proud that the Reeves and their growing Maine business have been recognized by the SBA, and wish them the best of luck in the national competition,” the senators said.
The Reeves said they are excited for the national recognition and the opportunity to get their message out about safe sleeping. The award money would help them expand the availability of their product to more boutique stores; the Bitzy Bumper is currently available for purchase on their website for $119, and on Amazon.com.
But they stressed that even with all the attention, the soul of the company will not change. “We were up until 2 a.m. last night, just chatting and strategizing,” Whitney said.
In Washington, the Reeves are “really going to focus on what makes us different,” she added.
“There’s really not some special sauce at this point to be in that final three,” Whitney said. “It’s really about looking back and focusing on what makes us different, what brought us to where we are, without losing ourselves.”
Whitney, left, and Seabren Reeves in Brunswick with their Bitzy Bumper safe crib bumber.