People say that starting and growing a company is like giving birth and raising a child. For NwaBebé co-founders and Longhorns Dara Chike-Obi (Law ’08, McCombs ’20) and Cockrell School of Engineering associate professor Lydia Contreras, entrepreneurship and motherhood are indeed inextricably tied. “The initial inspiration for NwaBebé was our journey into parenthood,” Chike-Obi says.
NwaBebé is a dynamic baby bottle system that goes beyond nutritional delivery and helps parents and their infants get the most of the 5- to 7-hour-a-day feeding routine by nurturing cognitive and emotional development.
“The first year of motherhood is TOUGH, and the main driver of stress can be found in the all-encompassing infant feeding routine,” says Contreras. With newborns, growth is the clearest indication of health. So, while infants spend an average of 5 to 7 hours a day feeding, new parents are constantly tracking and looking for numerous signs of development. “We soon realized that this type of time, emotional and mental commitment was a shared stressor for many new parents and wanted innovations that helped better capitalize on that time for everyone,” she says.
Babies are born ready to learn. According to Harvard research, an infant’s brain makes 1 million new neural connections every second during the first few years of life. This makes ages 0-5 years the most critical period for development. During this time, primary senses such as smell and vision are the first to develop, followed by higher cognitive functions. “Positive nurturing and interactive experiences with caregivers builds a powerful foundation for future learning and comprehensive health (mental, emotional and physical). This can also be a critical time to expose babies to new and different things,” Chike-Obi explains.
The company combines the foundations of newborn development, technical innovations and evidence-based therapies into a baby bottle and feeding system that advances early engagement between baby and caretaker. The patent-pending bottle design stimulates multiple senses and makes it easier to create positive interactions without requiring expensive toys, exposure to electronics and/or additional time.
With the help of a plastic surgeon, the co-founders created anatomically and structurally correct nipples intended to reduce nipple confusion. The ergonomic bottle is designed with modular attachments that evolve to support the infant’s rapidly changing cognitive and emotional development.
We have a true appreciation for science, technological innovations, and education. We believe that all three can be accessible and used as tools by every parent.
When Chike-Obi and Contreras were introduced by a mutual hairdresser, the new mothers realized how much they had in common. They’d given birth two weeks apart, had deep ties to The University of Texas at Austin, and had postponed motherhood to pursue careers — Chike-Obi earned a law degree at UT Austin and practiced as an oil and gas attorney for almost a decade before pivoting to get an MBA at UT Austin. Contreras earned a Ph.D. in biomolecular and chemical engineering at Cornell University and joined UT Austin as an associate professor in the Chemical Engineering department to teach, mentor students and direct a research lab. They also shared a belief in the crucial importance of — and underrepresentation of — simple yet effective early engagement techniques.
To move NwaBebé from ideation to gestation, Chike-Obi and Contreras turned to UT Austin. Through the university’s entrepreneurial hub, the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars network, they participated during the summer in both the SEAL incubator and the LaunchPad Summer Startup Fellowship. “Doing both programs at the same time has been a godsend,” Chike-Obi says. “LaunchPad kept us on track with actionable milestones through the fellowship. That, combined with the SEAL programming, has been meshing so well together.”
Nina Ho, assistant director of UT Austin’s LaunchPad, has been impressed by the founders’ ability to receive and act on feedback. “Both women are powerhouses, and it’s been exciting to witness their growth every single week. I have no doubt that NwaBebé will go on to make the impact that the founders envision, and the UT Austin ecosystem and network at large is the ideal environment to support them on their journey.”
Through the summer’s LaunchPad programming, Chike-Obi and Contreras determined the need to move forward more quickly with features that were closer to completion. They’ve also signed on an adviser from a leading baby bottle manufacturer and completed product testing and market validation. Early results show 95% of parents agreed NwaBebé’s features enhance the overall feeding experience for the infant. More than 87% agreed their child was more engaged and attentive during feeding, and more than 84% agreed their child experienced less fussiness. As a result of a more pleasant and engaging feeding experience, participating infants also experienced a significant increase in their milk consumptions during a feed. The founders say they are excited about these first validation results, as the ability to bring these features into market can be truly transformative to the experiences of many parents.
Since the fellowship ended, they’ve successfully gained patent-pending status and are now looking to raise funds in order to test the market with a short product run. If all goes well after the test, the duo hopes to have their innovative new feeding system on the market by the third quarter of 2021.
While the company and its products are still in their infancy, one thing remains consistent: the co-founders’ shared understanding of NwaBebé’s brand and its values.
“We have a true appreciation for science, technological innovations, and education. We believe that all three can be accessible and used as tools by every parent,” Chike-Obi says.
“What’s important when we’re with our children is the simple experiences that can model joy in learning: looking at shadows, touching sand, touching water, appreciating a smile or a sound without a phone,” Contreras says. “We’re very conscious of what our children are exposed to and how they interact with their world, and through this company, we aim to enhance these interactions to the fullest.”