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Milking gains from intellectual property

Hegen tackles IP protection challenges for its creation of a unique product, a 3-in-1 breast milk container used to express and store milk and feed babies.

Ms Bock, who started Hegen two years ago, says that the goal is to encourage more mothers to breastfeed and for those who do, to continue breastfeeding their babies for a longer period of time.

CREATING a new product and brand from scratch is not easy. It took entrepreneur Yvon Bock, a mother of four children, almost five years to design and develop a new sustainable breastfeeding solution.

Ms Bock, founder and managing director of Hegen, has come up with a unique square container that has three functions built into it. The bottle allows mothers to "express, store and feed" using a single container by simply swapping the bottle's feeding head, storage lid and adapter to convert a feeding bottle into a breast milk storage container or pumping container - without transferring the contents. This minimises wastage and reduces mess, making every drop count to promote seamless and sustainable breastfeeding.

Hegen breast pump adapters, storage lids and feeding heads are designed to fit the same bottle. Thus it serves as a three-in-one container cum bottle.

Hegen, which was started by Ms Bock two years ago, creates sustainable and high quality items to meet the needs of the growing child. Designed to enhance the user experience, Hegen's practical and multi-functional products encourage a sustainable and hassle-free nursing experience.

"Through this journey we had to face a huge number of challenges from design conceptualisation, branding, IP protection, manufacturing to global partnerships. For each of these categories there is a story I can tell, but allow me to focus on our IP journey and why IP is so important to us," says Ms Bock.

About a year into the initial design finalisation and just as she was about to go into the prototyping stage, Ms Bock discovered that her design had been leaked and someone else was about to start mass producing an almost identical product. At that stage she had not even begun registering the designs or filing for patents as she had intended to understand the product better before taking that step.

"The silver lining to this episode was that our designers and I were determined to do something that others had never tried before and therefore could never claim as their own. It was time to revolutionise the conventional round bottle," Ms Bock recalls.

A few years before she began her journey, she had read in an article that out of 95 per cent of mothers who initiated breastfeeding, only 21 per cent of them sustained it for six months or more.

Enhancing the experience

"Many people misconstrue exclusive breastfeeding as having to be with your baby 24/7 and latching for each and every feed," she says. Many mothers give up when they face latching-on problems or are unable to provide a regular supply of milk due to work schedules or other lifestyle reasons. "Hegen aims to make a difference and provide a sustainable breastfeeding solution to mothers all over the world," says Ms Bock.

"Our vision is to enhance the breastfeeding experience, to make it simpler and easier so mothers can embrace a breastfeeding lifestyle and babies can continue to enjoy the goodness that only a mother can provide. Our goal is to increase the percentage of mothers who initiate breastfeeding and the duration that they are able to sustain it. This is my calling in life and a way of sharing my breastfeeding journey and experience with all mothers who breastfeed."

It is important that the team has to believe in the same vision. "It is not easy for startups to attract and hire talents at the outset and we have had our fair share of struggles putting together the right team. One thing that I have learnt over the last few years is to find people who share similar values. Knowledge can be learnt, skills can be taught but you can never change one's values.

"From our internal teams to our overseas partners, it is important to try and work with people who share similar views and believe in our vision. Ultimately, working with Hegen is not about what Hegen can do for you, but what Hegen can do for others. This has been the key decision factor in who we hire, work and collaborate with," says Ms Bock

Being in a business family - both sides of her family own separate businesses - has been a tremendous asset, as there are always close mentors available to consult when required.

"Starting a new business is always a risk but the entrepreneurial spirit of our family has time and again provided me with the strength and a 'never give up' attitude when it comes to running a business," says Ms Bock.

Although Hegen as a startup is 100 per cent self funded, it is backed by her father's factory with over 30 years of manufacturing experience. From a sustainability perspective, it controls the entire process end to end, ensuring that its products are manufactured to the finest quality. This has been a key differentiating factor which has allowed Ms Bock to think out of the box when it comes to product design.

"Having our own factory allows us the leeway of experimenting with certain ideas which would not have been otherwise possible. My father, Chan Ching is a prudent businessman and our investor in the business. He manages our factory and is responsible for realising the designs and products for Hegen," says Ms Bock.

There were times while creating the Hegen express-store-feed system that she hit a roadblock and felt that it was impossible to achieve what she wanted. It was her father's drive and belief that helped to overcome the challenges.

"His passion for learning and the constant upgrading of himself has been inspirational to me over the years. He is the main reason Hegen materialised. My partner in life and business, Leon Bock, has been instrumental in the success of my breastfeeding journey and for giving me strength to take the plunge into the unknown.

"My breastfeeding journey would not have been successful without his constant support, reassurance and presence every step of the way. He is my pillar of strength. He was initially a silent partner in the business supporting me from an emotional and psychological standpoint but with the business expanding rapidly, he has now assumed the role of handling our business strategy and overseas market development.

Hegen's parent company Fitson Singapore, owned by Ms Bock's father, has its factory in Johor, Malaysia, where all Hegen products are manufactured. The factory's capacity has been enlarged to meet increasing global demand and will be expanded further.

Besides Singapore, Hegen products are sold in international markets such as China, the United States, Russia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macau, India and the Philippines. There are plans to launch in Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. The company is in talks with potential partners to take Hegen to the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and Canada.

Different markets

"Every market is different with some utilising a distributor network while others require us to work directly with online or offline retailers. There isn't a one size fits all model, which only makes it all the more important that we need constant market surveys before deciding on the best route to take," says Ms Bock.

Having just completed the second year of business and as the company ventures into more new markets overseas, getting IP protection is costly and complex. The time and cost involved in filing, maintaining and updating the IP portfolio can add up to be more than creating the product itself, says Ms Bock.

"Each time we conceptualise a new product, we quickly follow that up with design and patent searches and filings. Before entering a new country, we ensure that our trademarks are clearly in place. We effectively held back our overseas launch by a full year in order to ensure that our trademarks, patents and design registrations were properly filed and cleared."

Hegen has been working with different international law firms, each with expertise in patents, design registrations, trademarks or litigation to ensure that its portfolio is always up to date and ready for the next big launch. IP protection is a necessary and ongoing process.

Looking ahead, Ms Bock says that IP protection remains one of the biggest challenges for Hegen as the company markets its products globally. "Any great product will inadvertently be copied, but the problem with copycats is that they are not trying to make it better, but instead cheaper and faster. Often, safety is compromised and although it may look like the real product, it can be a dangerous difference when it involves infants.

Ms Bock is of the view that entrepreneurs should spend time to understand the full scope of IP requirements before embarking on the next big product. "It took us quite a while to understand the filing process for each country and the timelines involved. IP protection can be a career long affair and you should know what you are about to enter into. Yes, it will be costly and time consuming, but the value it brings to both your organisation and your consumers will be well worth the investment."

Her suggestion is to work with a law firm that really understands the company's nature of business, product cycles and globalisation plan. "As an SME, we cannot afford everything and must constantly decide between must haves and good to have. More often than not you will find yourself depending on the advice of your law firm, so work with someone you can synergise with!"