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Sharon Rogone

Bili Bonnet

When babies are born prematurely, they frequently require days or weeks of special care in hospitals’ neonatal intensive care facilities. These tiny patients present a variety of challenges for the nurses and doctors who care for them; their delicate bodies need both nurturing and protection, and standard equipment can be ill-fitting or otherwise less-than-perfect at doing the job.

Neonatal nurse Sharon Rogone had spent two decades working with preemies when she came up with a way to solve one of these problems. When premature babies with jaundice were treated with ultraviolet lights, it was necessary to protect their eyes from the harsh rays with coverings. But the bilirubin masks that were available were often hard to keep in place for too long.

Rogone began working on a design for a head-hugging but soft and flexible nylon, bilirubin eye mask made specifically to fit a premature infant’s face. She called the mask the Bili Bonnet. The product would take her in a brand new direction in her life that would help thousands of premature babies, and at the same time allow many other health care professionals get their innovations to market.

Rogone was born Mary Sharon Shoffstall on Aug. 8, 1942, in Los Angeles. She was educated at San Bernardino Valley College and at California State University, Santa Barbara, and became a registered nurse. In the 1980s, while working at St. Mary’s Hospital in Apple Valley, Calif., she noticed that nurses in the NICU were always struggling to keep babies’ eyes protected by constantly checking and re-checking their masks. They tried everything from cotton balls to construction paper to get the masks to stay in place, but nothing seemed to work. Using supplies she was able to gather at the hospital, Rogone crafted the Bili Bonnet and showed it to her colleagues. The design won great praise from fellow nurses.

She began looking for ways to bring the Bili Bonnet to market, attending nursing trade shows, seeking out financial backers, and handing out samples and flyers. She had very little success going this route, but she was reluctant to start her own manufacturing company until she talked it over with Andrew Webber, a medical sales representative she’d met at work. Webber convinced her to set out on her own, and offered to become a full partner.

Armed with a patent on the Bili Bonnet, Rogone invested $1,500, as did Webber, and the pair launched Small Beginnings, Inc. They began demonstrating the Bili Bonnet to staff at hospitals, attending trade shows, and sourcing materials to manufacture the goods.  Their hard work paid off; today the Bili Bonnet is used in hospitals around the world, and Small Beginnings keeps warehouses in both Victorville, Calif., and Texas.

Small Beginnings did not stop there, however. Rogone began working more of her own ideas into the company’s product lineup and then she realized that other nurses also needed a place to get their ideas off the ground. She made it the mission of Small Beginnings to expand its product line, capitalizing on the ideas crafted by fellow health-care professionals, specifically those who understand the challenges of caring for premature babies.

Rogone’s husband Phil soon joined the team, along with Ken Croteau, who helped the company grow its distribution network. Today the company’s offerings include pillows, mattresses, blankets, pacifiers and nearly 20 other innovative infant-care products.

[September 2008]

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