In 2016, the year Dr Harvey Karp debuted his tech-enabled SNOO bassinet, CES mainstreamed the term ‘Baby Tech’ at a dedicated section of its Las Vegas show. Since then startups have rushed to monetize the early years of human life—a market set to be worth $16.78 billion by 2025, growing by over 5% each year. Some, like monitors and breast pumps, have proved useful. Others—toddlers’ wearables, anyone?—less so.
In the three years since, few products have been as highly-praised as the SNOO, a “smart sleeper” that knows when a baby is crying and rocks it back to slumber. Happiest Baby, the company Karp founded in 2001 with wife Nina Montée Karp, taking the name from his best-selling The Happiest Baby on the Block book, claims the SNOO keeps babies asleep for one-to-two hours each night, and reduced instances of SIDS. If that sounds too good to be true, many scientists agree.
Little wonder Happiest Baby is backed by $33 in venture capital. It is currently seeking more, as it seeks to expand into foreign markets and roll out widespread availability of the SNOO to rent, rather than buy, with the latter costing parents a much-criticized $1,300. Red Herring spoke to Karp on a visit to London, where the company has stepped up activity in recent months.
Britain’s nationalized healthcare system doesn’t prevent its new parents from suffering sleepless nights: a trauma that costs the UK economy an annual £8.1bn ($9.9bn). Ten to twenty percent of new British mothers get post-natal anxiety or depression. Karp’s career has been dedicated to reducing this problem.
Los Angeles-based Karp argues that human babies are born a trimester too early, and that they require a post-natal womblike experience to avoid colic. The science varies—many have disagreed with Karp’s conclusions—but Karp, drawing on experiences of parenthood worldwide, emphasizes the “5 S’s”: swaddling, shushing, placing on the side or stomach, swinging and sucking. Sounds in the womb are louder than a vacuum cleaner, he says.
“We change their environment suddenly, then we wonder why the baby’s not sleeping well,” Karp argues. “Well, we’ve taken their freakin’ environment away.
Karp adds, “We have to go back to the natural way and regain some wisdom over how we’re living our lives, and one of those things is sleep.” Conflictingly, Karp’s next argument is to shell out $1,300 on a tech-heavy bassinet. He explains it simply. In past generations childcare was a group activity. Families lived together and babies were passed from relative to relative, as household chores were completed.
The SNOO does the job “an older sister or grandmother would do,” says Karp. “This is really a virtual helper, a robotic assistant that is there to give an extra pair of hands.” Moreover, it challenges a deep-seated reluctance in society to alleviate pain or suffering, which is often seen as an essential part of parenthood. This “macho, suck-it-up” culture, Karp says, is damaging—and does little to help anybody. “This bed is really like a super smart swing,” he adds. “It’s giving the baby these rhythmic cues. If they’re getting more sleep they’ll be better parents—they’ll be more available parents to their child.”
Following a slew of criticism around the SNOO’s prohibitive price tag, no doubt accelerated by its endorsement by celebrity mothers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoe Saldana and Scarlett Johansson, Happiest Baby is pushing a rental model to widen its customer base. By paying $5 each day—around the cost of a Starbucks coffee, Karp likes to say—parents can use the SNOO for its six month usage span. Corporations like Snap and Hulu already offer the SNOO to new-parent employees. Karp anticipates that insurance companies will subsidize it too, cutting lost labor and hire costs.
Breast pump startups have already made the move to a rental model, in a market that is booming: The baby-monitoring market is set to be worth $1.63bn by 2025. Karp believes the SNOO can make the same rental migration with little friction. It’s the same salesman-like optimism that has earned him the title of “the new Dr Spock.” Karp loves the comparison. His goal is simple: “How do you help the parents?
“The goal we have is to solve many of the top problems that parents have, and one of the top things is exhaustion,” he adds. It’s not a problem he seems to suffer.