Houston locals Barbara Heilman and Becca Davison were excited to find out that they were going to be on ABC’s Shark Tank on May 6. It’s been a long time coming for the mother-daughter duo, who learned they would be featured last month. The pair had been swimming around in the Tank’s waters since they auditioned for the business-based show in February 2019. They even flew out to Los Angeles to pitch to the sharks last September.

Their product? UnbuckleMe: a small U-shaped tool that helps people with arthritis or other disabilities unbuckle children’s car seats by hooking around the buckle and lessening the force it takes to unclip.

The pair sells their tool in shops across Houston, such as The Pampered Pickle and Bering’s, , and in nationwide chains Buy Buy Baby and Nordstrom, as well as on Amazon for $14.99. However, Davison says they were excited to showcase their product on a larger scale to parents and grandparents across the country.

“To be able to know that this Shark Tank platform will be able to tell them about this solution to that problem is really gratifying to us,” Davison says. 

The problem

Everything started in 2016 when Heilman realized she couldn’t unbuckle her granddaughter’s car seat. She had been excited to take her granddaughter out and about around Houston—and Davison was excited about the free childcare—but because she couldn’t get the buckle, they were stuck at home.

When shopping around for different car seats, Heilman and Davison realized that car seat buckles are federally mandated to require nine pounds of pressure to unclip, which serves to prevent rambunctious kiddos from unbuckling themselves. But for Heilman, who has arthritis in her thumb, that wasn’t going to work.

“When I realized I couldn’t push the button on the baby car seat to get my granddaughter out,” Heilman says, “I realized I had to create an item for myself.”

Heilman, a retired occupational therapist who used to work for the Mayo Clinic, went home and started fiddling with some splint-making material she had in her garage and soon created the first iteration of the UnbuckleMe tool. “I used the idea of leverage to reduce the force,” she says. After showing it to Davison, the two began to do some market research to see what it would take to actually sell it.

They also had to perfect their tool. The UnBuckleMe is made from a thermoplastic sheet material, typically used for making hand splints. “You heat it, it stretches, it sticks to itself, it bends, it’s awesome,” Heilman says. She guesses they made around 70 different versions of the tool before settling on what they felt was the easiest to use.

“We have a whole box full of early prototypes that are really funny to look at,” Davison laughs.

Finally, they were ready. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in February 2017, where they raised more than $12,000, UnbuckleMe hit the mass market in October of that same year.

While the product is targeted towards grandparents, Davison says they quickly discovered other populations who could utilize it as well, such as moms with long fingernails or parents who want to give their older children some autonomy.

Swimming with Sharks

Heilman and Davison, who’s a big fan of Shark Tank, first auditioned for the show back in 2018. They flew up to New York City for an open call, and stood in line with hundreds of others to pitch their product to producers.

But the producers didn’t bite. 

The two tried again at an open call in Dallas early last year, and got a nibble. Davison says they spent months sending emails back and forth with producers. And once they found out that they would get to present to the actual sharks, they began to formulate different pitches for the different sharks they might encounter.

“We kind of had an angle for every single shark we thought might be there,” Davison says. “Why we would be a great partner to work with them.”

Once they got to Los Angeles, Davison says the whole experience was surreal. Her whole family flew out, and her daughter—and the car seat—were part of the presentation. Heilman says that although she was terrified, they had been working on this for so long that she just pushed through the fears. “Scared is just not an option.”

And while they can’t speak much to what actually happened on the show—see for yourself tomorrow night on ABC—both Davison and Heilman say the overall experience was smooth sailing.

“It was kind of surprising,” Davison says. “You’d expect, you know, a reality TV show—it’s just a bunch of sharky people, no pun intended.” However, both women say the show’s producers and organizers were cheering them on the whole time and helping them feel comfortable with the process.  

“They really care about entrepreneurs,” Davison says. “They want you to succeed.”

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