Henry Thorne: Disruptive by Design
When Henry Thorne (B.S., M.S. MechE '82, '84) graduated from the College of Engineering he set out to start his own company. His business strategy was simple: he would invent an amazing high-tech product and a lucrative company would follow.
His success didn't happen the way he planned.
Thorne created a wildly innovative product. By combining robotics with a graphic interface, he invented Cye, the first personal robot. It could vacuum the house and carry 15 pounds of goods to and fro. Cye was impressive—it appeared on TV shows like "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show"—but there wasn't a market for personal robots.
"After inventing Cye, I started asking who would buy it," says Thorne. "This isn't a good way to work, but it's the way a lot of engineers go. They get excited about the technology as opposed to the market."
Although Cye didn't pan out, Thorne applied Cye's technology to develop TUG©, an automated robotic delivery system that transports materials in hospitals. In 2001, Thorne founded Aethon, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company that today provides robots for more than 100 U.S. hospitals.
Moving forward, Thorne, an engineer to the core, partnered with "a brilliant market and business person" Rob Daley, and they "explored markets that were ripe for innovation." They studied products that lacked batteries and processors, seeking a niche where inexpensive electronics could be applied. They discovered that infant products, like seats and strollers, hadn't fundamentally changed in decades. In 2005 their company, 4moms®, was born.
They found their market, but they had to determine what consumers wanted. The team was venturing into tricky territory because "what people truly need and their perceptions of what they need are different," says Thorne. He elaborates, "People don't know what they want because they can't see it. Henry Ford said that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Thorne and Daley set a precedent to talk to mothers about their daily interactions with their children. They listened carefully, interpreting what the women said. These conversations led to the development of pioneering products, such as the Cleanwater Infant TubTM and the mamaRoo® Infant Seat, which are sold in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and China.
4moms Vice President of Operations Mary Koes (B.S. MechE, SCS '02; M.S. Robotics '04) is keenly aware of how market research contributes to 4moms' success. "There are at least a dozen moms who form focus groups and provide us with feedback. In product development cycles we talk to these women. Their challenges guide our product development." Koes, the mother of two boys, was attracted to 4moms because she wanted to apply robotics to consumer products. Further, the company's entrepreneurial climate excites her.
"Baby products have remained the same for generations. At tradeshows, folks are floored by our products," says Koes. Thorne concurs, "Our company has been labeled as disruptive in the juvenile market."
The story gets even better. "Our sales have increased by at least a factor of three every year. In Pittsburgh alone, we have at least 20 employees and most of our engineers are CIT graduates. We're designing infant products, so we need engineers who meet our high standards of technical excellence. Carnegie Mellon is the first place we look,"says Thorne.
As for future products, in the works is the Origami, a stroller that folds itself with the touch of a button. It will even charge a cell phone thanks to a generator in the wheels that charges the stroller while you walk. Collectively, 4moms' products are redefining a long-established market.