Saturday, November 26, 2011


In the late 1990s,Henry Thorne invented a charming flop—the $695 Cye robot, designed for such tasks as hauling dishes and delivering mail. People found it "really cool," he said, but few bought it.
Since then, the Pittsburgh engineer and entrepreneur has created a self-navigating delivery cart that carries supplies along hospital hallways, an electronically controlled baby bath and a portable crib that opens and shuts in a single step.
The latter two inventions are part of Mr. Thorne's latest niche—pricey, next-generation versions of classic baby-care products, aimed at affluent, design-conscious parents. (click below to read more)

The quirky product line, sold under the 4moms brand, is attracting notice from parenting magazines and competitors. Last year, Newell Rubbermaid, producer of Graco strollers and baby seats, acquired a 15% stake in the company that Mr. Thorne co-founded to make 4moms products. Sales are expected to total about $7 million this year.
During the week, Mr. Thorne, 52, invariably gets up by 5:30 a.m. and exercises on a treadmill, an elliptical trainer or a stationary bicycle in his home gym. He keeps the music off so he can think. He also thinks while strolling along the Allegheny River near his office and driving to work in his blue BMW 750i. "For some reason, driving in a car is very mind-clearing," he said.
He and his business partner, Rob Daley, work in loft-style offices strewn with prototypes of future products, most of which they won't discuss. In his corner office, Mr. Thorne keeps a DeWalt power drill, a soldering gun and plastic bins of screws, bearings and myriad other parts so he can tinker on the spot with his mechanical notions. Out of curiosity, he pried open an old MacBook computer one recent day to find out how it could spin its hard drive so quietly. He found that the drive had just one moving part, a steel disc about the size of a quarter.
As much as he likes to tinker, getting clear about the goal is vital, Mr. Thorne said. "If you define what you're trying to achieve clearly enough, then the ideas present themselves to you."
After getting a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1984, Mr. Thorne worked for General Motors as a robot expert. He set up his own company to make computer controls for robots, a small business he still owns. In 2005, while casting around for his next adventure, he agreed to have lunch with Mr. Daley, a friend who had worked in venture capital. By the end of what turned into a six-hour meal, they had decided to work together. Mr. Daley would come up with product ideas, and Mr. Thorne would figure out how to make them work.
Soon they founded Thorley Industries, with Mr. Daley the CEO and Mr. Thorne the chief technology officer. Their first idea: electronic temperature and on-off controls for showers. They thought their target market was male gadget lovers, but when they took a prototype to a household-products show, most of the interest came from mothers who feared scalding infants in the bath. Thus was born a baby bath with electronic controls and a draining system designed to refresh the water.
The two men—advised by an informal panel of moms from the Pittsburgh suburbs, including Mr. Daley's wife, Jenn—began studying other baby products. The moms told them that motorized swings and vibrating chairs were hit-or-miss when it came to pacifying infants. Mr. Daley suggested creating a baby chair to mimic the more complex kinds of bouncing and swaying motions parents use when they try to soothe a baby. The result was the mamaRoo infant seat, a sleek oval pod in a range of trendy fabrics, with settings that include "tree swing," "kangaroo" and "car ride." Introduced last February, it retails for about $200 to $240.
While taking a break from displaying 4moms baby products at a trade show in 2006, Mr. Daley noticed that a demonstrator showing off a high-end stroller had to bend down on one knee to fold it up. Mr. Daley rushed back to Mr. Thorne. "I said, 'Henry, three words—power-folding stroller.' He got it immediately."
Mr. Thorne started by jotting notes in a blue spiral notebook. Under "design goals," he listed "compactness," "simple manufacturing" and "visually exciting fold," among other things. He wanted a stroller that would make rival products look "cumbersome and dated." Soon he came up with a prototype. With the push of a button, the stroller retracts its wheels and curls into itself as the motor whirrs gently. Another push of the button unfurls the stroller to full size.
The strollers also come with a battery recharger, four cup holders (two for the parents), a cellphone recharger and an LCD screen that reports the temperature, speed and distance traveled. Called Origami, they are due to go on sale in early 2012 at a retail price of $849.
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