Labour of love

Labour of love
Yvon Bock, founder of Hegen.
PHOTO: The Business Times

BECOMING a mother is one of life's greatest blessings, but new mums often feel overwhelmed balancing the demands of both family and work. One particular aspect of motherhood that brings plenty of grief to new mums is feeding the baby.

As a mother of four, Yvon Bock, founder and managing director of Hegen, saw the need for a solution and decided to create a line of revolutionary baby bottles to simplify and enhance the nursing process.

"Going through the breast-feeding journey four times, I definitely understand the challenges faced by mothers when nursing. I feel passionate about designing bottles to assist not only mothers, but other helping hands in the entire feeding and bonding experience," she says.

Hegen was born after almost five years of intensive research and development, with innovative features such as its patented no-screw-thread closure, twist-to-open bottle design as well as its interchangeable feeding and storage bottle lids.

This means that the unique, square-shaped bottle can be closed with one hand while ensuring that it stays tight while the baby is drinking. The name Hegen comes from a part of an old German idiom Hegen und pflegen, which means "what you hunt you must farm, what you eat you must crop".

"It means to cherish, and we are in the business of cherishing our next generation. Essentially this phrase reminds us to take only what we need but, most importantly, to return to Mother Nature what we have taken from her," explains Ms Bock. She also adds that since the Germans are renowned for their precision engineering and product reliability, it is part of the inspiration behind Hegen's own design ethos which forms the basis of their overall design philosophy - simple, practical and innovative.

The conceptualisation for the baby bottle came about after her own nursing experience, and seeing what women everywhere go through. "To be a working mum and exclusively give milk to my child, I had to express at work. There are so many steps involved to pump, express, transfer, defrost and to feed with repeated steps of transferring containers," she explains.

There is also wastage involved during the transferring of bottles, with possible contamination and oxidation, which results in a loss of nutrients in the milk. "During this entire process I was thinking, shouldn't there be a way to make our lives easier? We should be able to express, store and feed with the same container. It was these pain points that really drove and inspired me to start Hegen," says Ms Bock.

While she is no stranger to the business - her father owns a contract manufacturing firm that produces mother and baby-care products for some of the top brands in the world - birthing Hegen was not without some complications and labour.

Years ago when the bottle design was in the refining stage, the idea somehow slipped out into the market, says Ms Bock. "We saw our concept being showcased by a major brand during a trade show that really stopped us in our tracks. We never realised how fast new ideas can spread until that moment," she shares.

Tough beginning

The experience led Ms Bock and her team to go back to the drawing board and start again from scratch. "We had to pick up the pieces and brainstorm again. At that point, it was hard to convince ourselves we could do something better," she says. The entire episode led her to realise the importance of intellectual property (IP) management. It took the team several years to learn more about IP management, and the company managed to register the Hegen trademark, register their designs and patent their innovations.

Ms Bock shares that she was glad that her team managed to pull through the tough period in the beginning. The second time around, they took almost five years to perfect their product through research and development, ensuring that the design, development, prototyping, material selection and actual user trials were all conducted comprehensively. "This is to make sure that we get it right the first time we launch," says Ms Bock.

Her father's manufacturing company, which is Hegen's manufacturing arm, has a team of in-house designers and engineers who developed the product after Ms Bock conceptualised it. Hegen also worked with a London design firm to design the product.

"We always knew what we wanted, but could not find the right local expertise to translate our product brief into what we envisioned in real life. You will notice that our bottles are stated as designed in London - that's because it was a collaborative effort between us and the London design agency to put the design down on paper," she explains.

Ultimately, Ms Bock says, Hegen is responsible for the conceptualisation, design and manufacturing of all their products - all the design rights and IP for their products are owned by them. While many startups are now focusing solely on e-commerce to drive sales, Ms Bock says both their online and offline partners are equally important.

Aside from being stocked at Takashimaya department store and Motherswork stores islandwide, it is also soon to be available on Amazon.com, with other global e-commerce sites on the cards. "Because we recently launched in July, both online and offline sales must work hand in hand. Parents want the touch and feel of the product before they are convinced, so we must work closely with the brick and mortar shops," she explains.

In order for the team to raise awareness of their brand and interact with customers on a first-hand basis, every single one of them - from the directors to the administration staff - had to personally promote their products at a roadshow for 10 hours a day. This included Ms Bock herself. In the process, she says the team learnt so much more about their products and it has given them so many new ideas on how to further fulfil the needs of consumers.

"I physically answer a lot of my customers' queries on private messaging as this value-add lets customers know that as a mother myself, I understand a lot of their issues. Most importantly as a new brand, many users might have the mindset that they don't want to try something new, so we have to convince them to take the first step," says Ms Bock.

Another significant factor that has been crucial in their business growth was government support, particularly from International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore and the DesignSingapore Council. "They were instrumental in supporting the whole journey of Hegen. For example, in the case of IE Singapore, other than taking up a grant that allowed us do market research, they have been matchmaking us with the right contacts overseas," she says. "They are very proud that Singapore brands are growing worldwide and they are really pushing the product. For an SME alone to knock on doors overseas, there is not much of a response. But when we go with a representative from IE Singapore, they know we mean business."

Most SMEs (small and medium enterprises) usually have problems filling manpower, but Ms Bock says she is blessed to be able to expand her core team and find the right people who share a similar vision to accomplish together. Hegen currently has less than 10 core staff, but they are rapidly expanding the team.

"When we design, we include all our team members so anyone can bring in their ideas. We have been able to fill in the roles quite smoothly so far. Our only manpower challenge has to do with finding promoters, but that is a country-wide problem," she says.

When asked about the amount of investment, Ms Bock declined to give a specific number, but said a "massive sum" was invested, with IP making up the bulk of it. However, she is confident that they will see success soon. In the near future, she says they will focus on coming up with new lines of products, as well as find more distribution channels to reach out to consumers.

While Ms Bock says that they will "never say never" about expanding their range of products to include other aspects of baby care, they are now focused on expanding their ecosystem. "It is always our vision that Hegen will be the quantum leap in baby-feeding products. We will continue to come up with further innovations to do so," she adds.


This article was first published on November 3, 2015.
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