Tim and Jill Wymore endured what most parents could never imagine: Within less than two years, their two children, Hannah, 9 weeks old, and Austin, 13 weeks old, died of the same rare disease. They had no warning before and no explanation after, but rather than give in to despair, the Wymores turned their tragedy into a business that would help make the world a little safer for kids.
The Wymores were so altered by their children's deaths, returning to their previous jobs didn't seem bearable. Jill worked at a local hospital. "It was a setting with a lot of children and babies coming in and I just didn't think I could handle it," she said. Meanwhile, Tim's work relationship with his employer -- a large product-development firm -- had deteriorated as he split his time between the office and the hospital. "It was nine weeks of pure hell watching our daughter die, and Tim was told if he didn't show up to work the day after the funeral, he wouldn't have a job anymore," Jill said.
They started their own business helping other companies develop products, but on the side, they were still looking for answers for what happened to their children and began researching environmental toxins. Based on their findings, they created Spuds Inc., which makes children's products such as plates, teethers, pacifiers, sippy cups and snack containers, using a bio-plastic made from reclaimed potatoes, free of chemicals and toxins. Spuds just exported its first international shipment to Canada, with plans to export to independent stores in Japan, China, the U.K., Eastern Europe and Australia by the end of 2012.
You started this business because of your children. Do you want to talk about what happened with them?
Jill: We actually love talking about our children. We had Hannah in 2004. I didn't have any problems with the pregnancy, but as soon as she was born, they realized something was wrong. We had four days with her before she had open heart surgery. After that, it was a really long eight-and-a-half weeks where we couldn't hold her. It was very hard to watch as a mother. She kept getting infection after infection, and her kidneys ended up failing from the antibiotics. She passed away at 9 weeks old from sepsis, basically -- she got an infection she couldn't fight. I call Hannah my fighter. For nine weeks, she fought to stay alive. It was really hard saying goodbye.
What explanation did the doctors give you?
Jill: They said Hannah had Cat Eye Syndrome, a rare disease. Afterward, Tim and I went through chromosome tests, and we didn't have the disease, so they told us it would be less than a one in a million chance to have another child with this disease. I got pregnant within a few weeks. With every ultrasound, they said everything was fine -- it was a boy, healthy as can be. As soon as Austin was born, we knew right away he had the same thing. We transferred him to Children's Memorial in Chicago and he had open heart surgery within a couple hours. He did great. He also had hydrocephalus, a couple lung surgeries and intestinal surgery. But we planned on Austin coming home. They were teaching us how to take care of him, what our life would be like with him. Then the worst thing possible happened: the veins around his heart started collapsing. We were told on a Friday that we had about two days left, and he passed away that Sunday. We called family and close friends to be with us. They were all able to hold him that day and say goodbye. It was very painful.
You probably thought watching Hannah pass away was the hardest thing you would ever have to go through. What were you thinking when you had to go through it again?
Jill: It was complete disbelief. People say a lot to try to make you feel better, like life won't give you more than you can handle. And I never thought we would be able to handle it twice. I couldn't believe he passed away. It was awful because Hannah passed away on July 22, and Austin was born a year and one day later. So it all happened very quickly. It was two years of this pain. But we always think of how fortunate we were to know them even for that short of time. So many families have miscarriages or cannot get pregnant. We feel fortunate that we got to meet our children. And they were both fighters.
Tim: Austin was more difficult for me. A week after his surgery, he was up and moving around. We were able to play with him, hold him, bathe him, change him. He was being a troublemaker in his hospital bed. With Hannah, we had four days and then were not able to carry her again, while with Austin, it was a very enjoyable time, and we thought we were going to bring him home and had beat this disease.
And there was no medical explanation for why this happened?
Tim: The hospital couldn't recall another case with two children with this disease where the parents didn't carry the gene, and they could not find a cause for this. The hardest thing was that they recommended we don't have children. Both kids had the exact same heart condition, so it wasn't a coincidence -- somewhere something was at play and they couldn't explain it.
The geneticists did say it's very possible that it could be something environmental, something we'd come in contact with. So we started doing research on some of the chemicals in our everyday life, from pesticides to plastics. There are a couple of chemicals in plastic that cause very similar defects in laboratory animals, which was enough to spark our interest to look at what we were using and to see if there were better options. Then we started looking at kids products, thinking about what kids are putting in their mouths and using on a daily basis. We were researching through government agencies, the few companies out there already manufacturing materials, trying to learn from all of them.
How did that research turn into a business manufacturing products made out of potatoes?
Tim: We found we could use the waste product of the potato industry, like factories that make frozen french fries. We buy the scraps and extract the starch and ingredients we need to make a polymer that is very similar to most plastics, but with all natural components, no synthetic items. We color it with organic color and have a really safe, biodegradable product. And we control manufacturing in the U.S., so we don't have to worry about it being mixed with another product.
Has it been a huge undertaking to manufacture your own product in the U.S.?
Tim: There are definitely times when I would have been happy to send a design overseas, sit back and have a nice product show up in a couple months. We've held out, even though it's a struggle finding engineers and manufacturing professionals where we're located, as well as buying equipment and warring with power companies.
But with overseas manufacturers, you can get paperwork and assurances, but you never really know what you're getting. Our focus is on anything that goes in a baby's mouth, whatever kids are around on a day-to-day to day basis, so we need to be as healthy as possible, without chemicals, including chemicals picked up in the air during transportation.
Do you get feedback from customers who appreciate that effort?
Tim: One family's child had a great deal of lead exposure and they were very grateful to find the product line. Another family emailed to say their child had a rare allergy to some chemicals in the baby room and they started trying to detox the room, from the crib to the carpet, and said our products were great. The best time is when we go to trade shows. Many of the independent stores were started by parents for medical reasons, and they've heard of us and seek us out.
In hearing these stories and while running the business, do you often think about your kids?
Tim: We do think about them all the time, especially recently. There are a couple of doctors who believe they can now test for the defect before and after conception. It's a complicated thing. And we're looking at adopting, which is complicated as well. In the next year or so, we want to look into having kids.
Jill, you called your kids fighters. With some of the challenges of starting a business, you've probably had to do a lot of fighting. Do your kids inspire you that way as well?
Jill: Absolutely. I have pictures of both my kids on my desk. It definitely keeps all of us inspired at work. I always tell myself Hannah didn't give up and Austin didn't give up. And they faced much larger odds than we do. So they are a very big part of how we run the company.
Tim: We've had pretty big catastrophes and big successes, and sometimes investors are utterly devastated if something happens, like the product didn't arrive on time or a machine breaks down. But if you sit down in your office for five minutes and consider losing two of your kids, whatever you're going through is not even a fraction of that. You can look back and say, "I've made it through worse." A machine going down or something happening with production is not the end of the world.
Name: Tim and Jill Wymore
Company: Spuds Inc.
Age: Both 33
Location: Dwight, Ill.
Founded: July 2010
2012 Projected Revenue: Low seven figures