Like many entrepreneurs, Urška Sršen’s path has been anything but linear.
The 25-year-old Slovenian applied to med school, then changed course, deciding to study sculpture at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki. She ended up co-founding Bellabeat, a start-up that designs devices to track the health of pregnant women, new mothers, the unborn and the newly born.
Sršen’s odyssey has taken her from her hometown of Ljubljana to Zagreb in Croatia, and San Francisco. Along the way the company won first prize in the Pioneers Festival’s 2013 start-up competition in Vienna; won a place in Y Combinator’s March class; and was voted ‘most likely to succeed’ among the Silicon Valley winter cohort. These accolades helped Bellabeat raise $4.5 million in May.
In September 2013, Bellabeat launched its first connected monitoring system for expectant moms in Europe, and earlier this year it entered the U.S. market. The pocket-sized ultrasound tool allows mothers-to-be to track their pregnancies (including being able to hear, record and share their baby’s heartbeat) and works with an app that lets women record pregnancy-related data like weight gain, nutrition, and even fetal movements. The app, which has been downloaded more than 200,000 times, also connects mothers with a community where they can swap advice.
“I believe the most dangerous thing we can do is to limit ourselves,” says Sršen, a scheduled speaker at the 2014 Pioneers Festival in Vienna. “It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a sculptor or a programmer. You can build great things together. Technology does not grow by itself; it grows out of different fields.”
Bellabeat did in fact grow out of the collaboration of a doctor, a sculptress and a programmer. And it all started thanks to kite-surfing, one of Sršen’s hobbies. She connected with her co-founder Sandro Mur, a Croatian computer software expert, through the sport. When Mur met Sršen’s mother, an obstetrician/gynecologist, she started talking about doctors’ need for an affordable, user-friendly system that would enable routine check-ups at home and send data to healthcare providers. Mur asked Sršen to help him. “We noticed when we were testing our system that there was an emotional value to this,” she says. “When pregnant women listened to the heartbeat [of their unborn children] they wanted to share that with loved ones more than with care providers. So we decided to scale down and start with a consumer product that would allow pregnant women to do self-tracking and make it an emotional, engaging, social experience.”
Growing A Global Company Anywhere In CEE Remains Challenging
Some 35,000 units of the ultrasound tool have been shipped to date. In late September the company released a new version, which allows moms to play music to their unborn and track reactions. After birth the same device can be used as a baby monitor. Bellabeat also announced two new products: a smart scale, Balance, that helps a new mother track her weight and that of the baby, and smart jewelry, called Leaf, which allows moms-to-be and new mothers to measure their activity, sleep and stress levels.
The hope is to grow a strong consumer user base, then pitch to doctors and other care providers to show them how they and their patients can benefit from Bellabeat’s system.
Growing a global company from Slovenia, or anywhere in CEE, remains challenging, says Sršen, Bellabeat’s COO. “There are quite a lot of start-ups from Slovenia but they don’t stay for very long,” she says. “A few generations back we figured out that we have to create things by ourselves if we want to succeed so we are raised to be very hard-working and creative.” The bad news is “there is no possibility of funding,” she says. The good news is “we are not afraid of going out and trying.”
At Mur’s urging, the company decided to try their luck in Croatia and set up shop in Zagreb but it proved impossible to raise money from investors anywhere in Central Europe or Germany, she says. The chance to join the Y Combinator cohort in the Valley was a lucky break that helped the company raise its first round and expand internationally.
Bellabeat’s products are only available online or via a few boutique maternity shops but Sršen says Bellabeat is negotiating deals with major retailers in the U.S. and Europe.