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Hegen: How design leak before launch spurs S’pore firm to come up with award-winning baby bottle

First published in The Straits Times on 11 January 2024.

Hegen’s products are now available in 25 markets around the world and it is continuing to innovate and expand, scaling up even more with the support of Enterprise Singapore.

Joining Enterprise Singapore’s Scale-Up programme enabled Hegen’s founders Leon and Yvon Bock to fine-tune their strategies for growth. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

Sometimes a devastating setback is exactly what is needed to spur greater innovation. When Fitson, the parent company of home-grown baby products maker Hegen, had its first ground-breaking bottle design leaked in 2011, the crisis sparked an opportunity.

“It felt like we had lost a baby,” shares Mrs Yvon Bock, 44, who herself suffered a miscarriage in 2009.

The parent company had invested heavily in developing the prototype, but the design was leaked and a competitor swiftly copied and released a strikingly similar product ahead of the launch.

The setback not only cost the company six figures in wasted investments but also sent its team into a spiral.

“The whole team was broken. We saw all our hard work go to waste,” recalls Mrs Bock, who adds that they went through a six-month “grieving period” before they recovered their morale.

“Every time we came up with a new design, we were filled with self-doubt and were critical of our work. I was guilty of this too,” says Hegen’s founder and chief executive officer. After the leak, she only started Hegen with her husband, Mr Leon Bock, in 2015.

Eventually, as the firm’s leader, she decided she had to set a different example. She adopted an optimistic stance, which she continues to uphold, to turn the team around.

“As a business leader, I must be a role model for our team. How the leader looks at innovation will cascade down to the team and affect how they feel about the work and ideas,” she explains.

Looking back, Mrs Bock says that was a turning point for her and the company. She says: “Moving forward was our way of winning. It’s a key milestone for us.”

The heartbreak has spurred the company to adopt a “simple, practical, innovative” approach to their designs – developing bottles and breast pumps – as it listens closely to the needs of new mums and babies.

Hegen’s Express-Store-Feed system, which includes the Press-to-close, Twist-to-open (PCTO) Feeding Bottle PPSU, PCTO Breast Milk Storage PPSU and PCTO Manual Breast Pump Module, won the Singapore Good Design (SG Mark) award in 2018, while its PCTO Electric Breast Pump won the same award in 2019. PPSU is a durable, light, medical-grade and sustainable plastic called polyphenylsulfone that can withstand temperatures from minus 20 deg C to 180 deg C.

Today, it has grown into a global player with customers in 25 markets, including China and the United States, and has almost doubled its revenue in recent years.

Looking to further expand the business, Hegen gained headway after joining Enterprise Singapore’s (EnterpriseSG) Scale-Up programme in 2022. It allowed the management to fine-tune their strategies and turbocharge the company’s growth. These included designing products for older children to extend the company’s journey with families.

The 12- to 18-month Scale-Up programme helps high-potential local firms to accelerate their growth and expand worldwide.

Enterprise Singapore’s Scale-Up programme has enabled Hegen to refine strategies and develop new product lines that will meet the needs of parents with children up to 10 years old. PHOTO: HEGEN

The companies’ executives attend management courses, partner with local and international consultancies to develop and refine growth plans, and network with other local business leaders. “Working with Enterprise Singapore gave us clarity on what we must do to take Hegen to the next level,” says Mr Bock, 47, Hegen’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

Innovating to address customers’ pain points

For Mr and Mrs Bock who have four children aged between 14 and 20, the key to growth and longevity lies in innovating to address their customers’ pain points.

Hegen’s founder and CEO Yvon Bock has steered the company past initial setbacks into creating innovative baby feeding bottles and growing its revenue. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

The firm’s patented no-screw-thread closure, the Hegen PCTO innovation is a direct result of Mrs Bock’s struggles with breastfeeding her children over 10 years.

“I was carrying a full bag of products to work every day. It was like I was going camping. Everything was made for a single purpose,” she recalls, referring to the breast pumps and storage bottles she had to lug to and from the office.

To address the problem of hauling around clunky breastfeeding pump parts and storage bottles, parents can switch out the accessory for their needs. A mother can attach a breast pump to a Hegen bottle to express milk, snap on a storage lid for storing the milk and switch to a feeding collar and teat to feed her baby directly when required.

“Everything happens within one container, minimising wastage and making every drop of milk count,” Mrs Bock says.

With accessories that can be swiftly snapped on and twisted off for different functions, such as pumping, storing and feeding milk, Hegen's bottles are designed to serve different purposes and minimise wastage. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

Unlike conventional feeding bottles that are round and have screw-thread tops, the Hegen bottle is square with rounded corners – what Hegen calls “sqround” – to stop it from rolling off the table. Its no-screw-thread top can be easily closed by adults with just one hand but not by young children.

“It took us five years to get the design right,” says Mrs Bock. “We went through more than 200 iterations and conducted multiple rounds of home-user trials. I personally followed up with each user every week to get their feedback. We wanted to ensure that we were solving mothers’ pain points, not adding to them.”

 A key feature of Hegen’s feeding bottle is its soft-square shape that is easy for babies to hold and less prone to rolling away. PHOTO: HEGEN

In an effort to safeguard these innovations, the company has been proactive in securing trademarks and patents, and has 783 of them that span 51 designs. It also collaborates with watchdog groups and law firms to tackle counterfeits, unauthorised accessories and other intellectual property infringements.

While Mrs Bock continues to oversee the design of each new product, she also set up a research and development (R&D) team of eight in 2021 to speed up its innovation efforts. The firm sets aside over half of its profits for such work. One result was its PCTO All-Rounder Cup to help babies learn how to drink out of a cup, which won a Red Dot Design Award last year.

With the goal to continue innovating, Hegen set up an R&D team to speed up such efforts and has also put aside half its profits for new products and solutions. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

It has a rolling five-year plan where the senior leadership and R&D team map out which products to focus on after discussing their business cases. Mrs Bock adds: “Last year, we began to rope in other stakeholders, like our distribution partners, to share their wish-lists and vote on the innovations that we should come out with.”

EnterpriseSG supports Hegen in several ways, including connecting the firm to suppliers and research partners, such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), to facilitate product development and innovation. It has also provided grants to help Hegen expand its capabilities and internationalisation efforts.

Opportunities to scale up

As Hegen expands into more markets, it finds new and creative ways to innovate – and grow its business. One example is its new Hegen By Me service, which allows customers to personalise a Hegen bottle for themselves or as a gift to others.

“That came from a trip that we took to New York for a trade show in 2020, right before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. We went into a lot of retail stores and saw that they had this type of personalisation service, and it was a big hit with people, so we wanted to make it one of our offerings too,” Mr Bock says.

The trade show was organised by the National Retail Federation in New York, and was part of a learning trip organised by the Singapore Retailers Association and once again facilitated by EnterpriseSG.

The Hegen By Me customisation and personalisation service adopts a scalable model where the company appoints franchisees in key markets to meet orders. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

It has also adopted a franchising model – an idea born from the Scale-Up programme. Mr Bock says: “Our original idea was to use Singapore as the base to fulfil orders from all parts of the world, but the shipping costs would have erased the profitability.”

“We can appoint franchisees in our key markets and give them the whole process, system and structure for them to meet the orders,” he explains. “This is much faster and more scalable. We would never have considered this if not for Scale-Up, as we had never done anything like it before.” Hegen has five overseas nodes lined up and slated to launch in the near future.

Mr and Mrs Bock note that EnterpriseSG’s support has been crucial in helping the firm take its innovations worldwide, from providing support to hone its branding and digitalisation to taking part in trade shows.

In 2022, Hegen showcased its products in New York’s Showfields mall as part of an EnterpriseSG-organised pop-up event to introduce Singaporean brands to the US market. For this showcase, the firm also received training sessions to gain better insight, and obtained access to a public relations agency for influencer outreach, resulting in increased visibility in the New York market.

Mrs Bock highlights that when the company enters new markets, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, EnterpriseSG’s overseas centre directors provide invaluable assistance. “With its extensive network, we’ve gotten contacts of logistics firms to fulfilment centres,” she adds.

With EnterpriseSG’s aid, Hegen is currently in the process of getting its factory and products certified by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification organisation. “This will enable us to further differentiate ourselves worldwide. ”

Next on the cards for Hegen is getting its factory and products certified by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) organisation to validate its eco-friendly practices. PHOTO: HEGEN

For its next stage of growth, Hegen will focus on three pillars: breastfeeding, primary feeding and secondary feeding, with the last reinforced by their time in Scale-Up. “The first two pillars help us stay with customers until their child is one or two years old. The third could extend that to six to 10 years old,” Mr Bock explains.

The firm is also building a constellation of services to better support breastfeeding and first-time parents, such as virtual lactation consultations in collaboration with health technology firm Doctor Anywhere, and workshops. It also gives back to society by providing some of these services for free to shelters and the underprivileged.

This dedication to help parents – and in particular mothers – is key for Hegen.

“We have a mission to serve 100 million mothers around the world, and we let that lead our innovation,” says Mr Bock. “When we come up with products that help and serve mothers, we attract more customers.”

Transform your business through innovation

One way to grow and scale your business is to deepen your innovation capabilities. To help companies embark on that journey, Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG) offers various initiatives.

The Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) is a network of Singapore and overseas partners in major innovation hubs and key demand markets with a focus on technology and innovation.

Under the GIA, there are Co-Innovation Programmes with 40 countries. These support Singapore-based companies and their overseas partners to collaborate on research and development (R&D) projects for new products and solutions with strong market potential.

EnterpriseSG also has Centres of Innovation (COIs), where you can get access to technical expertise and facilities for your innovation activities. Connecting with the COIs can help you enhance existing products and develop new ones, increase efficiency through collaboration, as well as upskill your workforce with training and coaching from qualified experts.

Find out how you can find partners to innovate with and expand overseas here.

This is part of a series on how home-grown companies are making an impact on global markets, showcasing how they scale up with technology, innovation and sustainability, as core aspects of their business, with the support of Enterprise Singapore. Find out more here.