Matthew Sheets, like many other parents, read the news in disbelief earlier this year as yet another child died while inside a hot car, seemingly left behind by a forgetful parent.
It wasn’t the first time he had read the harrowing accounts of parents who left their children behind only to return to find them dead of heat exhaustion, and Sheets knew it would not be the last time.
“I had read all of the stories,” he said. “That is something you hear about and you never forget.”
As the 26-year-old Birmingham man looked at his newborn son, he said he knew there was something more he needed to do.
So Sheets, founder at Studio Whale, a design and development company, set out to create a device that would aid in preventing such deaths. He eventually landed on Starfish, a quarter-size, weight-sensitive sensor that will send a signal to your cellphone if you leave your child — or something heavy — inside of the car seat. The product uses Bluetooth technology and is operated through an app on your mobile phone.
His first attempt was, he said, a bit clunky: the device needed the user to push a button. “But I knew it needed to be automatic,” he said. That is when he came up with the idea for Starfish.
Sheets, a computer programmer by trade, is hoping that Starfish will be available to purchase in stores throughout the Southeast by December. But first he needs funding for the product. A Kickstarter campaign is underway with a Sept. 5 deadline.
Here is how Sheets said Starfish would work:
A parent would take the plastic encased sensor, Starfish, and adhere it the inside of the car seat just underneath the padding. Once the child is locked into the seat, the child’s weight will trigger the sensor to turn on and it would remain on as long as the appropriate amount of pressure is applied. If a parent leaves the car with the sensor still activated a signal will be sent to the cell phone once the parent gets about 30 feet away from the car. If the parent does not respond to the cell phone message, then that would trigger a message sent to an emergency contact.
Sheets is aiming his product at expectant parents, hoping to get Starfish into boutiques and small retailers. “There is a real need for this,” he said.
The number of child deaths inside of hot cars seems to support Sheets’ claim. More than 600 children have died from heatstroke after being left inside car between 1990 and 2010, according to KidsandCars.org, a group aimed at stressing the dangers cars pose to children.
About nine of those deaths occurred in Alabama and another 22 occurred in Georgia. The majority of deaths occurred in warm climates such as California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Sheets said that while researching the issue he looked for the common denominator in all of the parents who had made the same fatal mistake. What he found was that the issue was not isolated to one kind of person, or one socioeconomic group.
“I thought, This could happen to me,” he said. “This really affects everyone.”
Sheets thinks that one of the few hurdles to Starfish succeeding could be that parents and parents-to-be still don’t want to admit they may need the device.
In an essay written this year, Dan LaCivita, the president of a digital creative agency (), echoed those sentiments, pointing to the commenters on the stories about the deaths. “Judging by the reactions and comments that pour out after each of these accidental actions, many, unconsciously or sub-consciously pass judgment on these moms and dads left to forever live in guilt,” LaCivita wrote.
So far Studio Whale has garnered more than $5,000 in pledges on Kickstarter. Sheets said the goal is $15,000 to get the first production order going.
Sheets said he tried traditional routes to attract investors to the product.
“We approached investors and they wanted to wait until a patent was in place,” Sheets said. “That could take three years and this needs to be in parents’ hands now.” Sheets said he will make good on that idea: anyone who donates $50 to the Starfish Kickstarter will be guaranteed one of the first models of Starfish when it is released.
For more information on Starfish, visit Studio Whale’s Kickstarter campaign page.