PROVO — Earlier this year, Brigham Young University graduate Jordan Monroe was reading Owlet customer satisfaction surveys when something caught his eye.
In the space for additional comments, a mother wrote that the Owlet baby monitor alerted her to a change in her baby’s breathing, and she believed it saved her baby’s life.
“My jaw dropped, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Monroe said. “It’s like when you’re looking for the holy grail and it knocks on your door, tweets at you or sends you an email.”
Owlet is now producing real-life results, but it began as a simple recognition of a need and a desire to meet that need.
While pursuing his undergraduate degree at BYU in 2012, Monroe’s friend and now business partner Kurt Workman’s aunt gave birth to premature twins, one of whom has cerebral palsy. Workman watched as his aunt became physically sick from the stress she experienced.
As Workman considered ways to reduce the stress levels of parents, he remembered something he learned earlier that week about a pulse oximeter, a device often attached to hospital patients' fingers that monitors heart rate and oxygen levels.
He began to wonder if a pulse oximeter could act as a baby monitor. With this kind of monitoring, his aunt and other parents might get some sleep. Workman shared the idea with Monroe, whom he met at the Missionary Training Center in Provo years before as the two prepared to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Monroe was initially skeptical, but upon considering the fact that unintentional suffocation is the leading cause of injury-related death among children under 1 year old, he determined that even if it was a long shot, it was “a worthwhile long shot.”
“I think that’s something that’s been interesting, and that is interesting to note right now, is that we really started with a hypothesis,” Monroe said. “We assumed that we could build something, but we didn’t know.”
Workman and Monroe, along with their friend Zack Bomsta, had no idea whether it would be possible to create a pulse oximeter small enough to fit on a baby’s foot. The pulse oximeter has been commonly used in hospitals since the 1980s, but the trio built a product that does exactly what they intended it to do with the possibility of doing even more.
“There have been a lot of naysayers that have said that if something happens to a baby, you just can’t react in time or you can’t respond, and it doesn’t really follow logic,” Monroe said. “It just falls under the mentality that if we could do something like that, we would’ve already done it. We were really kind of walking in the dark at first, not honestly sure if this was even possible but really crazy and naïve enough to think that we could.”
They recruited other talented people to join their company, including Sean Kerman.
Kerman began working for Owlet part time while he was getting his master's in electrical engineering from BYU. He had his heart set on working for (and began interviewing with) companies such as Google, eBay and Hewlett-Packard Co., but upon graduating, he accepted a full-time job with Owlet. He is now Owlet’s vice president of research and development.
“I’ve learned a lot more at Owlet than I think I would’ve learned any other place,” Kerman said. “I think it’s been a good decision for my family. Startup lifestyles can be kind of a double-edged sword. They can be really, really intense sometimes, and other times they’re actually really great for family life. It’s really been that kind of startup where we make sure families are prioritized in the company culture, and I think it’s been a great fit and a great blessing for my family.”
Fresh out of college and with very little business experience, the Owlet team was able to raise $7 million to build and develop the product and company. Monroe feels that his full-time missionary service prepared him for this experience and says that in many ways the mission served as “an entrepreneur boot camp.”
“I really think that teaching you to plan, to have accountability, to be organized, there is nothing else like that where 19-year-old kids get to learn that hands on, so missions are a huge blessing," Monroe said.
A number of the company’s employees, including Monroe, Workman, Bomsta and Kerman, are returned missionaries. Monroe said Owlet filled a void he felt upon returning from his mission.
“I think that having served a mission, almost everyone kind of looks back on that time and says, ‘Man, I wish that I could be doing stuff that mattered again. I wish that I could be doing something where at the end of the day, I know I’m making a huge impact,’” Monroe said. “And I think for me that’s been one of the biggest indicators. I feel like I’m getting that good feeling every day and that I’m doing something important."
As the product has gone through various stages of development, the founders’ lives and families have evolved. Monroe, for example, became a father, which has only made him more passionate about the company’s mission.
“I think I got the vision of it (before), but I don’t think I felt the vision of it,” Monroe said. “I feel like when you become a dad, it’s like your heart wasn’t working before, and then someone put in this chip or like this booster, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s how that was supposed to work.’ It’s crazy how you can just feel so much for a child, and there’s no other way I could get that. I had interviewed a lot of people, but I just couldn’t feel it until I had my son.”
After receiving that first email detailing how Owlet helped one family, Monroe began to wonder if there were similar stories among the company’s 2,000 customers. He sent an email and received a handful of responses.
“We got these results after just 2,000 parents were using our product,” Monroe said. “What happens when we get this out to 50,000 parents? Then what kind of impact can we have, and how many more stories are we going to collect? That’s a big motivation for us.”
The Owlet baby monitor is available online and is considered a home health product, but the company plans to get FDA clearance for a medical version of the device “that will be used in a hospital or clinical setting by the middle of 2016,” according to owletcare.com.