Owlet's smart sock is making a big difference to little lives

We chat to the startup that's taking baby monitoring to the next level
Owlet: A big difference to little lives
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"One of our first beta customers found out that their daughter had a congenital heart defect that went undiagnosed in the hospital." Owlet is not your typical piece of smart clothing. It doesn't track workouts or control your smartphone. It has one mission and that's to save infant lives.

Joe Atkin, Owlet's president and a parent with four children, can already report that since the wearable has gone on sale, it's already been making a difference to moms and dads.

The smart sock is worn by babies and uses pulse oximetry technology and a heart rate sensor to monitor a baby's breathing and identify any interruptions as you try to get a few hours of sleep.

Essential reading: The best baby tech and connected baby monitors

"About 1.5 % of American moms are purchasing the product right now," Atkin told us. "One in a thousand babies just pass away in the crib. We've sold over 40,000 units, so by the numbers we should have 40 deaths. At this point we are one year into market and we have 0 reported deaths.

"What we do have is around 40 reports of parents saying 'this alerted me, I ran in and saw my baby choking.' It alerted mom and dad to intervene in time."

Birth of a baby monitor

What started as a student entrepreneur project has swiftly turned into a startup that has raised over $10 million and managed to bring hospital grade-like technology into the home. Owlet has a vision to be the leader in infant health monitoring and wants every baby to leave the hospital with an Owlet-like monitor in five years. It's unsurprising to hear that its CEO and co-founder Kurt Workman drew on from personal experience to bring the potentially lifesaving wearable to life.

"When Kurt's wife was a baby she had a congenital heart defect," Atkin explained. "It went undetected in the hospital and her parents didn't know. One night her mother got up and was worried about her baby. So she looked at her baby, Kurt's wife, at 10 days old and she wasn't breathing.

"They rushed her to the hospital and she had to go through several surgeries. She's alive and healthy today. It was down to that intuition of a mom. Kurt worried if this was going to be a genetic thing. If we are going to have kids, how are we going to do this without watching the baby 24 hours a day?"

After spending the last 2-3 years making the smart sock smaller, ten times less expensive and more accurate than a hospital monitor, Owlet is now available for parents to buy through the startup's website, with plans to enter retail stores in the US in 2017.

Most of the feedback Owlet receives comes via social media, mainly Facebook, both from parents that wished they had one when they had their baby and from those who have purchased the $250 setup. "We've had several reports from parents that had gone to a paediatrician and the alerts had uncovered some underlying problem such as RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus), bronchitis or a congenital heart defect."

For many parents, the idea of having so much technology so close to a newborn baby sounds daunting and potentially harmful. Atkin is keen to reassure any concerns on having motion sensors, a pulse oximeter and three Bluetooth radios in such close proximity to a newborn. "We've gone through third party labs in terms of the radio frequencies and the accuracies," Atkin said. "It's a concern but it's not a big concern.

"Our product has six times less radio frequency than the standard accepted by the FCC. We wanted to make it a very safe product. There's so much less frequency than an iPhone or iPad that's for sure. The biggest concern is: will it alert me if my baby is having a problem?"

A smarter clothing approach

What's clear is that Owlet is an example of smart clothing with a very niche purpose. This is something that Atkin believes could be a key factor as to why we are still waiting for smart clothing to really break out into the mainstream. "I hear mixed reports of the smart clothing market and part of it depends on the how necessary the product is," Atkin told us.

Our mission is to save lives. We are not trying to be part of some wearable or IoT fad

"Our mission is to save lives. We are not trying to be part of some wearable or IoT fad. A lot of the smart home products we see, they just don't have a necessity so that's why they are not getting the adoption."

So what's next for Owlet? While Atkin believes the technology could spread into other industries such as elderly health, the company is still very much focused on infant health monitoring. Whether that's at a very early age or at different critical stages of a child's life. It's working on platforms that give parents a better insight into the data and how to use the data. But there's more.

"We're hoping in the future we can give some early indicators to predictive health issues that can indicate when something is not normal. We'll share the data with you and recommend you go to a paediatrician."

Don't rule out some form of smart home integration either, a feature which Atkin believes makes a lot of sense with baby related tech. "The baby kind of controls the house. If the baby is asleep, parents want the doorbell to alert the phone. They want certain lights to be on low. We've had some discussions with some of those major players involved in this space."

While Atkin talks about the future, he's keen to bring things back to Owlet's mission. The one that keeps him lying in bed wondering if he should check in on the baby again. For every parent that goes through the guilt of checking in more and generally being run ragged by checking in all night long.

"We believe we can cut the infant death rate in half or more. We want to prove that clinically so we can say it."