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Grant boosts nurse's newborn business

By John Lundy

Forum News Service

HIBBING, Minn. -- Cutting a small hole in a common product proved to be a bull’s-eye for one Hibbing woman.

Jonelle Krier’s Assessables for newborns are bodysuits — typically known as onesies — with a slit that leaves the umbilical cord stump exposed.

The idea came from Krier’s years of experience as an obstetrics nurse and nursing instructor, and her knowledge of the evolving understanding of umbilical cord care after birth as the stump dries up and eventually falls off, usually in about two weeks.

“It seems to be the No. 1 concern every parent has when they leave the hospital,” Krier said last week. “‘What will I do with the cord?’ They’re very nervous about that.”

The thinking about that has changed since Krier, 65, entered the nursing profession. The former belief, she said, was that the stump should be swabbed with rubbing alcohol to prevent infection. But researchers learned that alcohol and other chemicals were killing the protective microbes that are the body’s natural defense against infection. Also, air drying became the standard for natural healing of the stump.

The Mayo Clinic confirms Krier’s observations, advising on its website that the cord stump be exposed to the air and that alcohol not be used.

At the same time, onesies were becoming standard clothing for infants. But here’s the rub: “We started to see some problems with this, not only in that the area was not getting natural air flow, but even the rubbing was causing some irritation,” Krier said.

She worked out the astonishingly simple answer at her dining room table. Her son, Christopher Krier, an engineer, said he could handle the manufacturing. She found a patent attorney and received her patent in 2011, three and a half years after applying. She came up with — and got a trademark for — the name Assessables. It refers to the ability to assess the cord’s status, she said. It also, she knew, would not get buried on the Internet like a term such as “accessibles” might.

Her business was barely under way, putting out a high-quality but basic white garment, when she learned about “MomInspired” grants. The grants are offered by Huggies, the diaper makers, to give women with startup businesses an assist. It was almost the 2012 deadline, but Krier quickly put together an application and got it in with a day to spare.

Two months later, she got a phone call.

“I just about died,” Krier recalled.

From more than 900 applicants, Krier was one of 11 women to receive the 2012 MomInspired grants, said Kelly Stephenson, senior brand manager for Huggies. Krier was the first winner from Minnesota in the program’s three-year history.

It was an easy pick, Stephenson said.

“Jonelle’s rose right to the top,” said Stephenson, who is based in Neenah, Wis. “We’d never seen anything like it. It was unique, and clearly an unmet need.”

The grant was for $15,000 and more: Krier gets marketing advice from Stephenson and others at Huggies, which is a brand of Kimberly-Clark. She’s part of a network with the other grant winners, giving her a chance to share ideas with other female startup entrepreneurs. And during the week of Oct. 14, she’ll be the company’s guest at ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas, the largest such show in the country. She will have exhibit space and all of her expenses paid.

The grants are good public relations for Huggies, Stephenson said, but the primary reason the company got involved is altruistic. Company executives noticed that fewer than 3 percent of investments go to U.S. businesses started by women, he said. Their customers are primarily women, and “they are in the trenches every day in understanding what needs aren’t being met.”

Giving a helping hand to women with great ideas made sense, Stephenson said.

Should a grant recipient decide to sell her company, Huggies has first dibs, he said. But that hasn’t happened so far and isn’t the company’s goal.

The money allowed Krier to expand her product, she said. It’s now available in a variety of colors for retail and Web sales, as well as the original white for the version sold to hospitals. The new line just came out in June, she said.

Although it so far has found a place only in smaller stores, it has a wide reach — stores in Florida, Alabama, Arizona and Missouri sell the product, she said.

It’s also found closer to home.

“They’ve done really well in the store,” said Suzanne Rian, owner of the Moxie boutique in Hibbing. “I’m really proud to be able to carry something that is from my hometown.”

Rian primarily sells women’s clothing and accessories, but she found a niche for Assessables. They’re often purchased as gifts, she said.

Her customers understand the concept, but not always immediately.

“I think first when they see it if they’re not familiar with it they kind of are looking at it and are confused as to why there’s a hole,” Rian said. “After explaining it to them, almost everybody has that ‘ah-ha’ moment and goes, ‘That’s really smart.’ ”