Sharon Rogone remembers her first days on the job in an intensive care unit for newborns in San Bernardino, California. Nurses cut tongue depressors in half, creating makeshift intravenous arm boards small enough for infants weighing as little as one and a half pounds. This was in 1980, when neonatal care was fairly new. "We were what I call Rube Goldberg nurses," says Rogone. "We would take things and make things because there weren't any products out there to fit the babies."
That experience prompted the neonatal nurse, with just $2,000 in start-up funds, to become a businesswoman in 1981. Today her company, Small Beginnings Inc., boasts $1 million in annual sales to medical suppliers worldwide. Small Beginnings manufactures specialized products that enhance the health of premature infants while helping to reduce their lengthy (and costly) hospital stays. Case in point is Rogone's Cuddle Buns Diapers. If a diaper is too big, the infant's hips can develop abnormally, requiring physical therapy before he or she can learn to walk. Rogone's diaper design addresses that problem with a narrow, non-expanding crotch.
These products caught the attention of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History, which recently acquired some of Rogone's patent and trademark files, along with some of her inventions. "The idea that a neonatal intensive care unit could be a place of invention is intriguing to us because it's an extreme work environment where the nurses have to solve problems on a daily basis," says Maggie Dennis, a historian at the Lemelson Center.
Dennis also believes Rogone's innovations will strike a personal chord with museum visitors, as a growing number of families care for tiny babies. The rate of premature births has risen by about 30 percent since 1981. One contributing factor is the increased use of fertility drugs, which has led to a boom in multiple births. (Multiples are more prone to premature birth than singletons.)
In general, what stimulates invention is money. However, the soft-spoken Rogone, 65, says she was motivated by "my babies," as she calls them. The big companies "will put anything on the market that will barely meet the need and is the most cost-effective."
A construction-paper mask was part of a prototype for her first product, the Bili-Bonnet—a soft cap with a piece of molded foam held in place with Velcro to protect the eyes of babies being treated for jaundice under bright "bili lights" (from bilirubin, a yellow blood pigment). "We would sneak into nursing conferences and pass out our samples," says Rogone. Within a few years, she was mass marketing the masks. Rogone sometimes misses hands-on caregiving, but "I do have this feeling, though, that I'm impacting more babies' lives."