Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential
October 14, 2012
Joe Born's father has Parkinson's Disease, which causes him to frequently spill his drinks.
For most families, the spills would be lamented, then accepted as a fact of life. But not in the Born family.
Joe is an inventor — nearly 10 million of his CD-scratch removers, called SkipDrs, have been sold. So when his daughter, Lily, then 8, decided to craft a cup that her grandfather couldn't spill, Joe retrieved some moldable plastic he just happened to have lying around.
The result, which Lily named the Kangaroo Cup, will go on pre-sale this weekend for as little as $13 on IndieGoGo, a crowd-funding website similar to Kickstarter.
Here's their story — first as told by Lily, now 10, and then by Joe, 43, during an interview at 1871, the work space for technology entrepreneurs inside the Merchandise Mart. Joe rents a desk there. Lily, a fifth-grader at Edison Elementary School in Morton Grove, wore hot pink leggings and a bedazzled pink cotton top to the interview. It's her favorite color.
"I realized grandpa was having trouble because he has Parkinson's Disease, and he's always spilling things. My grandma wasn't happy about that. Sometimes she would just clean it up, and sometimes she would yell." (Joe interjects: "Ah, don't rat out grandma. Poor grandma." Lily smiles sheepishly and continues.)
"I wanted to build a cup that was almost impossible to spill. It almost is, fortunately. So I built this cup. There wasn't much to it at the start. It was a plastic cup with little homemade plastic legs. Well, I borrowed a plastic cup from my grandma and then added the plastic legs.
"Then I started getting into wheel-throwing. I did the wheel-throwing at a local art studio (Bughouse Studio in Skokie). I started with basic stuff, like bowls and plates. But my dad brought up (that) he could use a porcelain no-spill cup because he was spilling stuff all over the keyboard." (Joe says, "Wait. Who first noticed I was spilling stuff?" Lily feigns not to recall.)
"I tried the first cup by hand. It was really lumpy. Nothing like this. (She picks up one of two shiny, smooth Kangaroo Cups sitting on the table.) And then my dad started coming over to Bughouse Studio and working on the legs with me. Then I started making cups on the (pottery) wheel. Afterward, we would attach the legs and my art teacher would let us use her kiln.
"Then after a while, my dad wanted us to go to China because he has a friend there who owns a pottery studio. Then we started speaking with some people about making a mold of this. Then we spent, I think, two weeks in China.
"It was OK, in a way. It wasn't my first trip. I've been there a lot. (Joe interjects, explaining that Lily was adopted from China when she was 11 months old. This was her fifth trip — but her first on business, which she didn't care for much. Lily jumps back in.)
"It was a three-quarter-mile walk from the hotel to the place, and it was hot. By the time I was back to the hotel, my legs were tired, and that part was not good. And actually I got a little bit of a cold there. ... Thankfully, when I got back to the hotel, I got to take a cold shower, and I felt better.
"Most of our days were spent at the pottery studio. And every couple days, we'd go to the factory and see how our molds were doing. They were good. It was pretty impressive. I think it's a good idea to sell them because there are a lot of people like my dad who spill their coffee in the morning and aren't happy about that."
I asked her what she learned from the experience.
"The first thing I learned was that business trips are hard. But maybe if this cup does well, it might be worth making another trip."
"My sister is always doing art projects with Lily. So I said Lily, 'Let's do an invention project.' She's always coming up with various inventions. I say, 'What are the problems you see?' I've actually got on my computer a list of her inventions that go from the very useful to the absolutely ridiculous. One is a small pillow you're supposed to rest your nose on.
"But a lot of them are quite useful, like an umbrella that won't flip inside out.
"So (the question) was, 'What can we do about grandpa's spilling?' I remember this moment very distinctly. She was standing and she spread her legs, and said, 'If I put my legs out, it's more stable.' And I still have this picture. It's a pencil sketch, and she said, 'This is how I would do it.' There's a cup, and it showed two feet sticking out.
"And it was sort of like in Apollo 13, where you're rummaging through the house. I had this low-temperature plastic. I had never really found a use for it. It was a gift from Zach Kaplan, the co-founder of Inventables, which he gave away at the first ORD Camp (an annual invitation-only gathering of entrepreneurs and technologists). Lily molded it ... and we made a cup."
I asked Joe to explain low-temperature plastic.
"It's warm to the touch but you can mold it with your hands. It's very much like working with Play-Doh or clay. We really iterated. ... We had grandpa use it. I remember thinking, 'This is the way you should do product development.' It was very natural.
"Then frankly it sat for a while, probably a couple years. Then my sister took Lily to Bughouse. She started making bowls. She was really good at it. We got some real masterpieces at the house. I don't remember exactly how we went from there. We got to talking. She had seen I spilled and had all these coffee-stained documents. She said, 'Well, I can make you a coffee cup.' Then she made that. That was different. (It had a handle.)
"When she gave me that, I definitely ... (Joe stops mid-sentence and turns more philosophical). The world we live in. When I was a little kid, I had all these inventions. They would muck up the house. My folks would just kind of laugh, (and we'd think) oh, it'd be great if we could do something with it, but that's not the way the world works. When she gave me that cup, (I realized) that is the way the world works now: The ability to source products so easily; the ability to go on Kickstarter and get crowd-funding. I said, 'Well, Lily, do you want to try to take this to market?'"
The Borns began experimenting at Bughouse together. Through Joe's work in consumer electronics, he knew a ceramics studio owner in Jingdezhen, China, known as "the porcelain capital" of the world — even their streetlamp posts are porcelain. On their flight there, Joe put the finishing touches on a 3-D model of their design, his first 3-D model in 15 years.
"I remember the proudest moment of this whole experience, which is the highlight of my career because I'll never have another opportunity to work with Lily. I had been working on the 3-D model, and I was showing Lily, 'Well, how do you like this?' And as the plane was starting to come down and we had put our tray tables up, Lily says, 'Remember to save your work.' She had never said something like that to me before. It meant she actually put some value on the last eight hours of work."
First, they had to visit the potters who make the prototypes, then the mold-makers and finally the factory, where the Kangaroo Cups will be made.
"The folks who make these plaster molds are really kind of artisans themselves. It's different than you probably imagine. It's not big giant factories. It's almost like a garage. You open the door and they have molds littering the stairway. ... They don't operate off the computer stuff. I printed out a drawing. ... It's kind of old-school China. It's very free-form, still kind of Wild West. If you did this in the U.S., it would be very regimented."
The trip resulted in three preproduction samples. Following tradition, Joe sold the first one to his dad. The goal, however, is to raise enough money to produce a plastic version that would be marketed for children transitioning from sippy cups.
"This doesn't seem like an incredible innovation maybe, but if you're in the world of making porcelain cups all day, this is an unbelievable feat. It doesn't have a handle that sticks on. These are load-bearing members. They're just not used to innovation. They make slightly modified different teapots and vases. Now you have legs that are not handles."
Joe said the challenge is that it's much easier to make 100,000 of these than 1,000 — because the larger quantity gives him more leverage to negotiate pricing with the factory.
"I can never actually tell what Lily thinks about this, except for who she tells (about it). People will say, 'Oh, I heard you did this and that.' Then I know she told someone else. She cares more than she's letting on. ... It'll take years for her to totally appreciate it. But I think she gets that it's sort of a special thing."
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