Q&A: The fun way to help kids enjoy healthier food

This week we talk to Alix O’Hara, founder of Canberra-based Mashblox, an enterprise that’s changing the way young children are fed. The Mashblox device can be filled with food such as fruits and vegetables and the medical-grade silicone shell can be heated in a microwave oven and washed in a dishwasher.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind you setting up Mashblox?

AO’H: In 2015 a toddler caught my eye at the shops in Canberra. He was alternately bouncing and biting an apple until it was so covered in dirt that his father took it away. My inspiration was to make childrens’ instincts of playing with food more practical and less messy for busy parents.

Hollow silicone building blocks were an elegantly simple solution. They were stackable, and wouldn’t roll away or confuse associations with toys. Also, because they’re inherently playful, maybe kids would be happier to eat foods that parents otherwise have difficulty getting them to even try?

ISB: And tell us briefly how the concept works in practice.

AO’H: Mashblox makes baby self-feeding safe and practical. Suddenly, kids can handle mash consistency food. We focus on fussy eating and optimal food habits, but it’s underpinned by best practice in obesity intervention and empowering the child in developing healthy long-term habits.

ISB: How did you get your idea off the ground and running as a viable enterprise?

AO’H: The Canberra Innovation Network’s CEO, Petr Adamek, mentored and advised me to create a “functional prototype”, and to find “a pain point” or problem that my idea was solving (fussy eating), and test if it would do so. I leaned on my medical science background to explore the long-term health benefits of infants controlling how much they eat.

I also pursued development of our point of difference, specifically connecting with academia in population health who believed in our research and our unique position to lead it. This approach has since started attracting exciting commercial opportunities. We achieved cashflow positivity and claimed 1.36 per cent of our Canberra target market in our first month from product launch.

ISB: Coming into this as you did with no experience in running a business, how have you gone about learning about getting on top of doing just that?

AO’H: I find that most business secrets aren’t necessarily communicated (or understood) explicitly by any source. The best training on this is immersion among progressive, inspired and supportive people, and constant self-reflection on your contribution within the group.

I have never found such a supportive environment as at Canberra Innovation Network, both for their networking opportunities at all levels of all sectors that they attract to their monthly “First Wednesday Connect” networking events, and their programs and workshops which provide growth and personal development opportunities.

ISB: What is your vision for the growth and development of Mashblox in the next couple of years?

AO’H: Our vision is to lead a disruptive baby brand promoting infant self-feeding. Our new clinical trial platform app coaches parents on safe and practical baby-led weaning (aka self-feeding) tactics designed by feeding and behaviour experts that we’ve engaged around the world.

Machine learning customises these tactics to their child’s unique behaviours and feeding challenges, for a world-first evidence based health promotion app in this space. It’s just been awarded the iAwards ACT region merit certificate for the Research and Development category while still in planning stages, and is starting to receive commercial interest.

ISB: Finally, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give to those looking to turn an idea that solves a problem into a viable enterprise?

AO’H: You will never feel completely “ready” – or if you do, you’ve waited too long. If you weren’t nervous, then there’d be something wrong: typically that you’re blind to your unknowns and weaknesses. Everyone has some. Your start-up will be an extension of your intrinsic talent so you need to trust and be familiar enough with these to build to your strengths.

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