Sylvie Claes, a designer-turned-entrepreneur, has been releasing a new product that has won multiple awards, including a Red Dot and the best of Dutch Design Week Award. Born in Belgium, she moved to the United States, the UK, Dubai, and the Netherlands before completing her studies. Her travels have given her a well-rounded understanding of different cultures and interactions with diverse individuals. She believes this has given her an empathic view of her peers, which is crucial in the design process. Claes has been a resident of the Netherlands for five years and is 23 years old. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial design engineering and technology in design, both in The Hague and Eindhoven.
Returnofdesign talks to Sylvie Claes, a designer-turned-entrepreneur who is releasing a new product that has won multiple awards, including a Red Dot and the best of Dutch Design Week Award, which was presented to just six of 2500 competitors, should be interviewed by Realize Product Design.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from:
Where I come from is actually rather confusing because both my mother and father are South African and my father is Belgian. Although I was raised in Texas and Michigan, I was born in Belgium and moved to the United States when I was 2 years old. After that, we moved to the UK, where I lived in Ascot for a number of years. After that, I moved to Dubai and stayed there for five years. After Dubai, I spent a year in the US before traveling to the Netherlands to continue my studies. And here I am right now.
Wow, that’s a lot of journeys for a young person to make:
Yes, I felt as though I spent my entire childhood in a foreign nation, so I don’t really know where to answer when people ask me where I’m from or where I feel the most at home. I think my travels have given me a well-rounded understanding of many cultures and interactions with diverse individuals. As I have spent my whole life trying to understand people and where they are coming from or boxing myself in a specific way in order to fit into the next new environment I would be thrown into, it has given me an extremely empathic view of my peers.
So, although while I think it was really difficult for me at the time, I also think that it is a strength for me today because it allows me to connect with people, sympathize with them, and bring them together. This is a crucial step in the design process, in my opinion.
So tell me, if you don’t mind, what age you are right now.
I’ve been a resident of the Netherlands for five years and am 23 years old. I like it here. I was drawn here because of the strong design culture and the English-speaking population, and I’m happy to be here. I must love it a lot because I’m still here!
Here, I earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In The Hague, I earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design engineering. It was a really useful research. Then I moved to Eindhoven to do a master’s in industrial design, which was much less focused on engineering. My master’s degree placed a lot more emphasis on technology and its usage in design. Although I’ve usually followed more traditional product design methods and approaches, it nearly seemed like interface design.
Being a part of the modernization of the design business throughout my master’s degree was exhilarating. As technology and connectivity in all goods advance, designers need to have a deeper grasp of electronics and the development of interactive prototypes that can be tested with consumers.
Therefore, this was a step in the right direction for Hugsy. I did not focus in technology or electronics throughout my master’s degree because those subjects are not really my favorites to study and there are some problems with this method. However, I did specialize in design leadership and entrepreneurship. putting greater emphasis on the last stages of product launch and assessing product-market fit.
And this is the knowledge and training you’ve decided to share with Hugsy?
One of the areas of design that I found most interesting was putting a product on the market. The fact that you usually work on a project in school, get really into it, and get passionate about it, but then stop working on it after the concept phase is through or after you’ve built a prototype, demoralized me when I was a student. In my studies, we mostly focused on the final phase and rarely talked about the other phases, such as “how do we get this to the consumers, what are their needs and wants, and how is a product manufactured.” Hearing, “Oh, it’s been six months, fine, we’re dropping this project now,” and then moving on to a new one was something that I found a bit demoralizing. I’ve always been motivated to complete tasks. instead of continually creating a range of unique goods.
I often advised other students with outstanding projects, especially during my master’s degree, “You should turn this into a business.” I thought what they had was fantastic and should be sold in stores. However, many declined, stating, “Nah, starting a business is hard, I’ll just do something else,” thus I find it amazing that university design students have so many original and imaginative concepts. The development and use of more of these would be excellent.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur after being a student with a sellable product and a great idea?
I was one of those people who thought, “Oh my God, that sounds insane!” As a result, there was a stage before I ever thought about starting a business:
We worked on the Hugsy project during the first year of my master’s program, and it was by far the best project I have ever completed. At the start of the campaign, there were many beautiful nurturing components already in place because to our cooperation with a hospital.
We kept working on it long after the job was finished. During our downtime, we kept working on it. We presented our ideas at design conferences and events and received overwhelmingly good feedback from specialists in the field, including those in the medical sector and other designers. As a consequence, we started to get a lot of attention. I started to change my attitude at that point and say, “Oh, we could actually see this through.”
So that we could start thinking of Hugsy as a business, we enrolled in a business school at our university. At that time, we did not conduct any commercial dealings with Hugsy. It was more about analyzing Hugsy from this angle and taking him into consideration. We all agreed there was promise and a workable business paradigm for this to thrive, and I found it to be really exciting.
Working on the subject of preterm newborns also gave me a lift, you know? Nurses, doctors, and moms are responding to it, and they all want this device that finds a solution to this excruciatingly painful issue in the field. You are working on it. It seemed awful to finish after presenting them with the idea of a fantastic product that would address this issue as a designer who is enthusiastic about social projects and thinks that design can make a difference in people’s lives.
So, was there any remorse associated with your desire to launch? Did you feel pressured to launch Hugsy after discussing it to these mothers of preterm babies?
I don’t think it was out of regret. I believed there was a real need, a real problem, and we were coming up with a solution. I felt accountable and eager to see whether we could successfully bring it to market. As a result, this was my own drive since I thought our product had the potential to actually change the world. after performing research, running experiments, and finishing the process. I firmly believe in it, especially in the setting of a hospital, and it was this belief that motivated me to move on.
At one point, a researcher from the Maxima Medical Center in Eindhoven contacted us to say that they wanted to carry out a clinical experiment. This happened around a year into the project. This was enormous for me as a fresh design student. We had the notion, “Oh my god, we have the opportunity to test what we’ve designed on 20 premature babies in the hospital,” and I think it was my last “come on, let’s do it” moment.
I started thinking about the situation from a business standpoint when I was beginning my final year of college and considering my career choices. I thought it would be such a fantastic venture since we have clinical studies, the product is developing, and there is a market for it. Then I had the concept, “I could turn Hugsy into a business.” All we had to do was focus on the entrepreneurial part and figure out the processes for starting a business. Which phases are involved?
But I guess I was still thinking about it from a “student” perspective. Everything is speculative when you’re a student since you don’t know anything. In hindsight, I’ve come to understand this.
I thus participated in the HightechXL accelerator program for startups. I was in my final year of college at the time, and I believed this would be a great help in my attempt. Although it was really challenging to compete for that, we were successful. And they effectively told me that I would be welcomed if I had a team; otherwise, I needed to recruit a squad. But at that point, none of the students I had worked on Hugsy with were interested in continuing. They have no desire to work for a startup.
How did you come upon your group?
My founding partner was Jody. to cooperate with me in this effort. She joined me in the second month. We were involved with it at HightechXL at the time. when the taxing labor started. Everyone had been saying, “Yeah, starting a business is fun, everything is great, and we’re having a great time,” but after that, it started to develop into a startup and a real business. We were hurled right into the fire. You have to be committed. Nothing along the lines of, “You know what, I don’t like this” was spoken.
Therefore, did you change your perspective as a result of meeting your co-founder and being influenced by her, or was it more of an organic realization?
Since we connected through a HightechXL contact, I think it was the latter. Since he knew I was looking for a team, he introduced me to his future wife, a communications pro who had seen Hugsy during Dutch Design Week and was looking for a new job.
After a coffee break, there was back and forth right away. Very natural pace, intensity, and fervor. She left her job the next month and came to work with me. So it wasn’t like we knew one other before; rather, we connected via a shared interest in something we were both passionate about.
So what made Hugsy popular? What sparked Jody’s excitement for your venture and her willingness to join you and contribute to your design concept?
Premature babies frequently need to stay in the hospital for weeks or even months after birth. As a result, kids are missing out on vital communication with their parents. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that this kind of parental sensory deprivation is harmful to a baby’s cognitive, linguistic, and neurological development. Many of these infants ultimately experience serious problems or developmental disabilities as a result.
Our business places a strong emphasis on kangaroo care, which is all about skin-to-skin contact. When a parent and newborn are placed skin-to-skin, they synchronize. There is a wealth of evidence showing that hearing a mother’s heartbeat and hearing her voice can have beneficial benefits on a baby’s development. They co-regulate their temperature, their heart rate, and their breathing.
As an adult, keep in mind that your mental health isn’t at its best if you’re exhausted. Therefore, it seems sense that prematurely born babies would not develop as well as newborns who are less disturbed since they are more sensitive to negative stimuli like sirens and harsh sunlight in the hospital.
What specifically was your design brief?
Parents cannot constantly be in the hospital with their children. Then, how can we reproduce the advantageous stimuli that come from kangaroo care and deliver them back to the incubator?
The solution we developed replicates the effects of kangaroo care on the newborn inside the incubator and facilitates kangaroo care while parents are present in the hospital.
We developed a multipurpose blanket that helps a newborn move into and out of an incubator while keeping them warm, acts as a supporting wrap during the time when they are in contact with their parents’ skin, and takes in the warmth and smell of the parent. To place the baby in the incubator in the best possible way, the blanket also has positioning options. Additionally, we developed a heartbeat recording device that converts the distinct heartbeat of a parent into an audible sound and vibration. creating in the incubator a sensory environment similar to kangaroo care.
Has Hugsy’s goal changed since it first launched?
We discovered that there is a very high bar to overcome in order to get a product inside a hospital. In addition, there are several rules and restrictions that must be followed before entering.
We therefore acknowledged that it was a challenging and constrained market to join, but we remain committed to doing so since it is essential to who we are. However, in addition to hospital sales, we also need other income sources in order to build a successful and long-lasting business; without these other revenue sources, we would not be able to expand and support the firm.
We first made the decision to change course after working in the hospital environment for approximately a year because we realized that all newborns need caring and we thought we could adapt our goods to the homecare setting as well. Then, all that is needed is a CE mark, and within that market, there are a ton of other options, channels, and markets to pursue.
And were there any challenges in putting this significant adjustment in Hugsy’s marketing plan into practice?
They were real. We made the mistake of launching a product into a market that was completely unrelated to the one we had been researching in for a year and a half. We just felt that we required that market and set up shop there without giving the homecare sector much thought.
This is the challenge we are currently facing in terms of marketing, messaging, and overall branding in the home market when you take something that is intended for premature babies and is about nurturing and bonding, you will encounter mothers who say, “I don’t need a device to bond with my child, I can bond with my child.” Are people even aware of our business, there? At the end of this phase, we can come to the conclusion that there is no market need for this kind of home simulation replication equipment. However, as a business, you must assess and validate your brilliant concept to see whether other people are willing to invest because they also think it is a good one.
So, are you checking this right now?
A Kickstarter campaign we just started isn’t doing all that great. This has adversely affected the spirit of the team. The physical retail channels will be the next channel to be approved after this internet channel. This is a fantastic chance to learn. As long as we don’t find a market demand for home care or until we’ve found the best channel for the home care market, we need just keep validating. It is a fluctuating situation.
Is starting a business really the most challenging thing you’ll ever do?
It is unquestionably true that working long hours, having insomniac nights, and tearing out your hair are the usual. All of it is true. However, it is a fantastic chance to learn. I’m learning so much from this experience, a lot of it includes free-falling and nighttime navigation.
And starting a company as a female entrepreneur?
Being an all-female founding team, daily operations have a pleasingly feminine atmosphere. However, I think that as a company owner, being a woman and young is really extremely favorable. People want to help you and donate their time because you inspire them. If I had been a man, I don’t think it would have been any simpler; I think it would have been the same. It’s your mindset, I think. I have confidence and people take me seriously. You cannot say, “Oh, I’m young and inexperienced, so people will respond and treat me accordingly.” However, I live in the Netherlands, where people are extremely open and always advocating equality, so I am aware that others don’t have it as easy. I have never got the sensation that people are thinking, “Oh, this young girl.”
It’s really easy to get into a bad mindset with all the media and stories out there, so I hope that I can inspire women to start their own businesses and make that decision.
Do you have any tips or techniques you might provide an aspiring businessperson?
The most important thing, in my opinion, is having a team that is there to assist you. those who will stick by you through adversity. They are ready to step in and give assistance when things go horribly wrong, and they are always available by phone if you need guidance. Having and growing this network is therefore crucial. Always surround yourself with these people and keep these connections going. There is always someone out there who has been in a comparable circumstance.
Who has been that person—someone who has always been there—for you?
In actuality, it’s my dad. I understand how that sounds. But my father, who has always been very encouraging and supportive, was the one who recommended starting a business with Hugsy. He is a stockholder and regularly confronts me, which makes it challenging at times. He and my mother, though, have always said, “If you’re happy, healthy, and able to take care of yourself, do whatever you want,” and that has come to be my life’s guiding principle.
What then are your goals? In ten years, where do you see yourself?
Thus, I am presently the company’s CEO and Creative Director. But in the long run, I’d like to be the only Creative Director. We can then have a whole department focused on innovation for babies, creating these connected products and what we call “Tech and Touch” products – combining the best of technology with softness and comforting qualities. I want to be able to scale and develop the company to the point where I can step back and hire an experienced CEO. Because of this, it is my duty to always improve myself in order to finally fill that position.
Numerous design awards, such as the Red Dot Award, the A’ Design Award, and the Best of Dutch Design Week Award, have been bestowed upon Hugsy.
For further information
You can contact me on LinkedIn
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