For busy mums and dads with hungry babies to feed, Jim Shaikh’s invention might just be the best thing since sliced bread – or should that be the best thing since warmed milk? Like many innovations, this one is deceptively simple – a feeding bottle that also warms the milk. It’s an idea so obvious that my initial reaction is less ‘how clever’ and more ‘how come that didn’t already exist?’
It’s impossible not to be impressed, though, talking to Jim and Farah about how far they’ve brought their business in just a couple of years. What started as a throwaway comment in the family kitchen has recently been named by the British Library as one of the top 15 inventions of the last decade.
The story began when their oldest son, Daniel, was a baby. It was the middle of the night, and Jim was downstairs warming milk while Farah attempted to comfort a screaming Daniel. “It feels like forever, when a baby is crying and you’re waiting for a feed,” says Farah, “I’m not normally bossy! But I said to Jim, ‘you’re an engineer – can’t you do something about this?’”
Jim, who was running his own engineering company at the time, kicked the problem around with his colleagues, and a solution gradually took shape. Excited by his idea, Jim managed to get a government grant to help him with development and got as far as a prototype – but he needed more substantial investment to get his invention to the next stage.
In autumn 2008 Jim made a successful pitch to a team of venture capitalists – only to have the economy fall apart around him. “I’d literally just come out of the pitch when I heard that Lehman Brothers had collapsed – within two hours my investors had pulled out. It was heartbreaking.”
Undeterred, Jim set about trying to find the money elsewhere. Farah had given up her job as a lawyer when their second son, Niall, was born and the couple talked to everyone they knew – friends, neighbours, contacts from Jim’s rugby club. “By the end of the year we were doing Dragon’s Den style pitches in people’s living rooms!”
Despite the global financial crisis, Jim and Farah ended up with fifty shareholders and enough cash to put the Yoomi bottle into production. John Lewis agreed to stock their design and the race was on to deliver the first batch on time. “We had everyone in the office packing – shareholders and friends, then we hired a van and drove to the John Lewis depot.”
Within days of hitting the shelves, every bottle had been sold. “It was manic – we were sold out online in four days, and in the shops in ten. We couldn’t supply enough.”
It’s pretty impressive for a new product to take off so quickly, but it’s not surprising when you consider the advantages of Jim’s invention. The Yoomi warmer is portable, for a start – it fits inside the teat of the bottle, it can be charged in advance (by boiling, or in an electric steriliser), and it heats up in 60 seconds. So, basically, it can be used anywhere, anytime – which means no pacing around the kitchen waiting for the milk to reach the right temperature, and also no more begging for jugs of hot water in cafes.
“The feedback from parents has been great,” says Farah, “people say that the milk flows well, and that their babies like the fact that the whole teat is warm – it’s like a breast in a bottle! We’ve also been told that it’s particularly useful for people who have twins and can find themselves feeding pretty much all day.”
The warmer uses the same technology as gel-filled hand warmers. At its warmest it can be held comfortably in the hand, so there’s no chance of it making the milk too hot. The gel inside is non-toxic, but nevertheless Jim, who has worked as an engineer with cars and aeroplanes, is very safety-conscious. “We check every warmer three times before it goes out, and we’ve added food colouring and an edible bitter substance to the solution which means that even if there’s a leak, nothing will end up being swallowed.” Although parts for Yoomi are made overseas, all the assembly and testing takes place in London, under Jim’s watchful eye.
Farah and Jim have both worked hard to enable Yoomi to compete with the big, established bottle manufacturers. They’re now managing to make enough bottles to meet demand, and they’ve got further developments in the pipeline, including the recent launch of a new 8oz bottle.
But they’re going to have to carry on putting in the hours if they want to stay ahead of the competition. “It’s pretty full-on,” says Farah, “Jim leaves for work at 7.30 in the morning, and in the evenings we work side by side on the computers.” Even so, Farah, who, when she isn’t on duty as a mum to their two boys, is company secretary and in charge of liaising with parents, believes she has a better work/life ratio than she did as a lawyer. “I’m a more rounded person now – my brain keeps ticking over, but there’s more balance.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard for Farah and Jim to switch off from the business – on a recent, and rare, weekend away, they tried not to talk about Yoomi. “We had an embargo – it lasted about two hours!” Laughs Jim.
Although they’re having to work hard – and be hard-headed about the business, Jim and Farah seem to be managing, so far, to hold on to the benefits of being a small company. In their Docklands office, the warmth between Jim and Farah, and between them and their employees is tangible. Jim enthuses about his product, and engineering in general, and Farah comes across as caring, and engaged with her ‘Yoomi mums’.
Amongst the shareholders, too, Jim feels there’s a sense of community. “Everyone has different skills to bring. Our chairman is an ex-rugby club friend, another shareholder came up with the name. We all know each other – it’s a support mechanism, like a family.”