"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."