The most dangerous thing parents can do to their children, says Chris Lumley, is put them in a car. "Anything that increases their safety is absolutely necessary," he says.
Now, the 34-year-old former Magna International executive is about to find out if parents agree. His upstart Clek Inc. is hoping to shake up the $1-billion U.S. car seat market with the release this month of its "Foonf" convertible seat. The seat is safer, more stylish and, at upwards of $450, far more expensive than anything on the market. Hundreds of retailers across North America have bought up his entire production for 2012, in the thousands of units. "The way the Foonf will move in an accident is completely new and it's fantastic," said Cristina Lewarne, co-owner of upscale Vancouver baby boutique Crocodile Baby.
The Foonf, which is manufactured by a contract supplier in London, Ont., snaps easily into place (unlike most car seats, which are a pain to install), has an anti-rebound bar and features a "crumple zone" that Clek claims will reduce the force of an impact on a child by 40 per cent in accidents. (The private firm doesn't disclose financial details).
"This is compelling and proprietary technology that revolutionizes a product class," said Scott Clark, managing director with Covington Capital in Toronto, which invested $1.5 million in Clek last year.
Vehicle accidents remain one of the leading causes of serious injury and death among children in North America, due largely to their improper restraint. A joint study by the auto industry and Transport Canada in 2010 found that while more than 95 per cent of children were restrained in vehicles, child safety seats were only used correctly 64% of the time - and far less for booster seats. "Innovation on child seat design and useability is needed to that kids and parents will use them," said Anne Snowdon, a child safety advocate and researcher who led the study.
Clek started out as a project within Magna in the mid-2000s to make safer booster seats, used by children after they outgrow car seats. The auto parts giant tapped Mr. Lumley (his father, Ed Lumley, is Magna's former lead director), who had worked his way up through the ranks after starting as a summer employee during university and became a protege of CEO Don Walker, to lead the venture.
Data collected by Ms. Snowdon on behalf of an industry body partly funded by Magna showed that just 20% of school-aged children used booster seats. When she asked children why they didn't like them, they said the seats were uncomfortable and looked too much like baby car seats.
Clek (which Mr. Lumley and wife Jennifer, Clek's head of sales, bought from Magna in 2010) responded by designing boosters that had thicker cushions, more mature colour schemes and snapped simply into anchors in the backseat using rigid latches built into the structure of the booster.
The company's pricey boosters (ranging from $70 to $349 for a full-backed "Oobr" covered in Paul Frank designs) have been popular in upscale baby boutiques but Mr. Lumley felt Clek needed "to introduce [parents] to the brand earlier."
Clek set out to design a convertible car seat for children aged six months to six years that both looked good and improved safety. The Foonf incorporates technology that has made cars safer in accidents; upon impact, part of the seat crumples, absorbing force that would otherwise be transferred to the child. Mr. Lumley wouldn't go as far as to say other seats are unsafe: "What I will say is the safest seat is the seat that installs n your vehicle properly and fits your child properly," he stated carefully.
The design also has its own appeal: at a slender 17 inches across, three Foonfs can fit in a backseat, unlike most car seats. It also snaps easily into backseat latch systems and comes in stylish colours and designs. "When you become a parent it's all about compromise: I give up style for comfort, convenience for safety," Mr. Lumley said. "We didn't want to have that approach with car seats."
Ms. Snowdon hopes Clek will inspire other car seat makers to emulate the Foonf. "The opportunity here is we would have an increased correct use of car sets for kids in vehicles," she said. "That would be a public health win."