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Vancouver designer markets inflatable vest as therapy for autistic children

Snug Vest team includes Lucia Hsieh, Lisa Fraser (founder) and Monica McMahen

Tris Hussey

The makers of the therapeutic Snug Vest know their product doesn't work for every child, and at $395 a vest, it's far from cheap.

But when it works, the results are "always worth it," says Monica McMahen, head of marketing at Snug Vest.

Snug Vest customers are mostly parents of children with autism and other sensory and anxiety disorders. When a child feels overwhelmed by what's around them, the vest can apply deep pressure to their body. Mimicking a hug from a caregiver, it can help relieve anxiety and promote concentration.

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"But it's hard to tell how these children will react to anything," explains Ms. McMahen.

The Snug Vest also adds to a long list of expenses. The average cost of raising a child with autism 00 including fees for therapies, products and special education -- is around $60,000 per year, according to the organization Autism Speaks. Some of these costs are covered by the Canadian health care system and medical insurance, but the Snug Vest isn't one of them.

"The expense combined with the unknown of a Snug Vest makes it hard for parents to commit," says Ms. McMahen.

Snug Vest needed research showing how well the vest works so it could qualify for health coverage, which would then attract customers. But first they needed money to fund the research.

"It's a vicious cycle," she says.

BACKGROUND

Lisa Fraser invented the Snug Vest as her thesis project while studying industrial design at Emily Carr University in 2009. Originally called the Bear Hug Vest, the product was inspired after Ms. Fraser learned about the calming effects of deep pressure therapy. Typically, the sensory therapy technique uses weighted vests to apply pressure to the wearer's torso.

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However, these weighted vests appeared clunky and lacked user-friendly features that the industrial design student knew she could incorporate while staying true to the therapeutic technique.

Ms. Fraser's first move was to remove the weights and substitute air.

"The kids can inflate it themselves and decide the pressure they want, so it provides a level of independence and control over their own therapy," explains Ms. McMahen.

It can also be slipped on like a jacket and fastened in the front by the wearer -- unlike weighted vests which often need to be placed over the child's head by another person.

It took more than 200 prototypes for Ms. Fraser to get it just right. In January 2013, the Snug Vest finally came to market and the initial response was overwhelming.

"As soon as it was launched, Lisa had a lot of press," says Ms. McMahen. Canada AM and other media outlets carried the story, which caused an initial rush -- more than the company was expecting. "The team did everything they could just to fill this demand," says Ms. McMahen.

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But after the preliminary hype died down, word of mouth took over, which Snug Vest has relied on as its sole marketing tool until just a few months ago. The team realized the Snug Vest needed to get noticed by both customers and those in the autism research community.

SOLUTION

In March, Snug Vest hired Ms. McMahen as head of marketing, a year after she completed her Bachelor of Commerce at UBC's Sauder School of Business; her salary was covered by a government grant. Snug Vest still didn't have a big budget to promote itself, but the company set money aside to send Ms. McMahen and Ms. Fraser to industry conferences like this year's Autism Society of America's national conference in Indianapolis.

Snug Vest also implemented a 60-day money back guarantee. "It's really necessary for this demographic," McMahen says. "Spending almost $400 on something that's going to sit in a box in the closet isn't a possibility for some of these families."

Further, Snug Vest helped fund a key study by psychology researchers at the University of Victoria who analyzed the impact of Snug Vest on its users, which would prove significant to B.C. consumers.

RESULTS

"The results have been phenomenal," says Ms. McMahen. The company has sold more than 450 vests all over the world to countries like Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, Malaysia, and Hungary. Snug Vest is even able to offer a $100 discount until Dec. 25, 2014.

The company's most notable boost was from the University of Victoria study. The results, published earlier this year, reported parents saw substantial attention and behaviour improvements when their children were wearing the vest and up to 20 minutes after taking it off.

The company followed up with their own month-long study of 15 children using Snug Vest. Parents and caretakers reported an overall decrease of anxiety, tantrums and defensive responses, and more positive emotions after the vests were inflated.

The Snug Vest is now covered by B.C.'s provincial health-care system as an occupational therapy tool. The team is now hopeful their research results will encourage other provinces to follow this lead, so that more children can get a much-needed hug from a vest.

Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.

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