Mandy Haberman has lived the ups and downs of life as an inventor and is back with new products. She tells Workingmums.co.uk about her experiences.
Why are there not more women inventors? Mandy Haberman should know better than most. She is an inventor. She believes it is a mixture of childcare issues, confidence and an unwillingness to take risks which holds women back. “Men find it easier to take risks. For women to achieve their goals they need to step away from their comfort zone,” she says.
Mandy came to inventing by force of circumstances rather than intent. Her youngest child was born in the 1980s with Stickler Syndrome which meant she had to be fed through a naso-gastric tube by a nurse in hospital for the first four months of her life. “It was a horrendous nightmare,” says Mandy. “She had what they call a failure to thrive. It was an enormous burden. I had not realised until then that feeding your baby is such a fundamental thing for a mother. Having a nurse feed your baby creates a big block in the mother/baby relationship.”
It was very clear to Mandy that her baby needed to suckle, but she was told she had to be fed by spoon. "So I had her screaming on my lap while I tried to spoon milk into her. She was jogging all over the place and if I did get any milk in she choked on it. It was a bit of a disaster,” says Mandy. “She needed the gratification and comfort of sucking.”
Mandy gave her baby a dummy and it occurred to her that if she could get food into her mouth while she was sucking she could feed her better. She chopped off half of the flange on the rubber dummy and attached a syringe which she put in the corner of the baby’s mouth and squeezed the milk in in time with the baby’s sucking actions so she was sucking and swallowing at the same time.
Mandy’s professional background was in graphic design and she says her knowledge of visual problem solving helped her to design what became known as the Haberman Feeder. Mandy had been a stay at home mum since her oldest children, twins, were born in 1978. “I had intended to go back to work, but I had twins and then Emily came along,” she says.
Having found a way to feed her baby after such a nightmare few months, Mandy felt very determined to help other babies with feeding problems. It took quite a time to put her idea for the Feeder into action, however, as she had little time due to all the hospital visits she had with Emily.
She did thorough research before launching it, talking, for instance, to speech therapists who deal with feeding problems given that they are experts in oral activity and muscles. When she was developing the prototypes for the Feeder – which she had to raise thousands of pounds for by writing to hundreds of organisations – she spent a lot of time with mums in hospital getting them to try it out and give their feedback.
“I remember one woman vividly. She was sitting crying with her baby who had feeding problems. She was so stressed out. I gave her the Feeder and we started talking. I was there for the next feed when the mum was able to feed her baby. It was the most wonderful feeling. I really empathised with her,” she says.
In the beginning mums came to Mandy to get the Feeders and she kept in touch with all of them. She started to distribute it to parents and hospitals by mail order. Now, she says, mums start with the Feeder from the beginning and don’t even know about the kind of issues she had to deal with. “I feel very proud of that,” she says, even though it didn’t make her very much money. “It was enough, though, to help me work on the next project,” she says.
That was a much more commercial prospect – the Anywayup Cup. Mandy started work on that in 1991 when Emily was 10. The idea came to her when she went to the house of Emily’s friend and a toddler was there. The toddler ran across the room with a beaker of Ribena and got it all over the cream carpet. “It suddenly occurred to me that children needed something that could seal by itself,” she says.
This time round it was much easier to start production of the cup as she had contacts with factories and manufacturers and knew a bit about materials and intellectual property. “The first time I knew nothing. It was an enormous learning curve.”
She took out a patent on the prototype in 1991, but didn’t have enough money to do anything more until 1992. She then tweaked and polished the product. In 1996 she took out an additional patent. “I thought it was a belt and braces job,” she says. “I needed to protect it from being copied so I could protect our position in the market.”
The cup was gathering momentum when a major manufacturer came up with a similar product. “We lost two thirds of our sales overnight,” says Mandy.
She thought it would be very straightforward to sue for infringement of patent, but she was warned she could be countersued for not having a valid patent. The loser would have to pay both sides’ costs. “The potential liability could have been over £1m,” she says. Mandy felt that if she didn’t sue she wouldn’t have a business, but suing meant risking losing her house. “It was the scariest thing I have ever done,” she says. “I was a very meek person who hated confrontation. Suddenly I had to put my boxing gloves on. The legal team tried to persuade me to settle or walk away, but I had a lightbulb moment when I realised I had to fight for what was mine. It had taken five years to get the product to market and suddenly someone was trying to take it away from me. It was a moment of truth and I felt I would regret it if I did not fight.”
Her family backed her up, with her husband, now the director of Cass Business School, putting everything he had worked for on the line. It was just after Christmas 1997 when the verdict came through. Mandy had won. However, it wasn’t over yet as there were still 18 months for an appeal to be lodged. In the end the other company settled. Mandy’s sales picked up immediately after the result, but she also had to enforce her intellectual property rights in Europe and the US.
Over the last five years she has been developing a new feeding product – a bottle feeder – which Mandy, now a grandmother, hopes will be on sale next year and the Anywayup cup, which was taken off the shelf after the company that manufactured it went into administration during the recession, is being relaunched with a new design in the Spring.
Mandy is enthusiastic about her new products and looking forward to the future. "I think the new bottle feeder will revolutionise bottle feeding," she says.
For more information on support available for female inventors, contact the Business & IP Centre
at the British Library.