FREDERICK Stephanie Dellamura dreaded taking her toddlers to a public restroom.
Every time Gregory, 5, and Adam, 3, said they had to go, the pit of her stomach ached. Her mind raced with thoughts of contaminated surfaces as she struggled to help two boys use the restroom, she said.
"When they're younger, they have to hold on to the toilet seat for balance," Dellamura said. "I tried to make sure they didn't touch the toilet seat too much, but while one was going to the bathroom, the other would be playing and touching the floor."
Visiting parks and fairs was worse, she said. Portable restrooms are often filthy and there's no place to wash hands.
Dellamura, a Walkersville resident who has lived in Frederick County since 1988, understands communicable disease. She studied biology at West Virginia Wesleyan College and worked with people in the biotech industry who did cancer and genetic research. She stopped working to raise a family.
But dirty restrooms weren't her only worry. Candies and ice cream also made her boy's hands a sticky mess.
She started carrying plastic sandwich bags for her children to use as gloves to keep their hands clean.
The flimsy pockets didn't work so well. They slipped off and made it difficult to grip toilet seats.
Dellamura searched stores and websites for a product to protect her children, but came up empty-handed.
"I talked to moms about a product like this, but no one knew of any," she said. "Everyone I talked to encouraged me to look into developing it myself."
That's when Dellamura invented Gotta Go Mitts.
The disposable plastic mittens come 20 to a pack, fit children up to age 7 and cost about $5.
But it didn't happen overnight.
Market research, prototype development, manufacturing and marketing the product consumed most of her spare time over the past year and a half.
"It's been difficult because I became a stay-at-home mom to be with my kids and I wanted to make sure this didn't get in the way," she said. "I've had to struggle emotionally being with my kids, managing household situations and working with (Gotta Go Mitts)."
Idea comes to life
Dellamura was no inventor she was a mom who had a clever fix for a common problem. But she needed help turning that dream into a product.
A bookstore clerk suggested Tara Monosoff's "The Mom Inventors Handbook." It gives readers advice for conducting market research, developing a prototype, manufacturing and marketing a product.
Dellamura found the guide practical and inspiring. She followed every step and enjoyed reading about several mom inventors who turned inspiration into action.
"These are stories about moms who invented products, what their ups and downs were and we had a lot in common," she said. "These moms had a need, there wasn't a product on the market and they're raising a family, which is a 24/7 job. We're doing this on the side, so there were a lot of late nights."
One stay-at-home mom loved eating salad but hated cutting it into bite-sized pieces. She designed scissors she could hold with one hand to cut salad. That freed her other hand to hold her baby.
"She made more than $1 million and now her husband works for her," Dellamura said. "I thought, 'If she can do that with such a niche product, I think I can do something like this.'"
Her survey of more than 100 mothers friends, family, even strangers in bathrooms showed two out of three said they would buy disposable mittens for their children.
The information she collected helped guide the development of Gotta Go Mitts, such as making a small package to fit in a purse or pocket.
Dellamura made the first prototype on her kitchen table. Her mother-in-law and a friend helped cut and sew plastic sandwich bags into child-sized mittens.
Later, she invested $150 to buy a heat sealer to experiment with different shapes and sizes. Dellamura made mittens and tested them on her 5-year-old's left hand, as he held it up idly while playing games on the PBS Kids website. About 20 other children also helped test the mitts.
When her manufacturer sent her a box of first-run samples based on those dimensions, Dellamura was pleased to see it worked. No adjustments were needed for the full production run.
Bumps in the road
But there were set backs, too.
Dellamura struggled to find a company to make the mitts.
She found a list of more than 50 polyethylene manufacturers online. She e-mailed every one, but when few replied she grew discouraged.
Then she starting calling manufacturers.
"I started calling China in the middle of the night and asked whoever answered if they spoke English," she said. "If they couldn't, they usually passed the phone to someone who could, so the language barrier wasn't a problem."
After spending hundreds of dollars on long distance calls, she found the right one in China.
Then the project almost stopped while Dellamura considered product names during the package design phase.
An Internet search revealed a similar product already on the market. It came out the same year Dellamura thought of her idea.
"I felt like I got the wind knocked out of me and got very depressed," Dellamura said. "But I realized with a product already on the market, I had to do more research."
She bought a package to test them out. The bulky paper mitts limited the ability to touch, didn't fit easily and were not waterproof.
Dellamura hired a patent attorney to find out if her product was too similar to the paper mitts. Her attorney assured her the products were different enough for Dellamura to continue.
Later, she showed several fellow moms Gotta Go Mitts next to the paper version to find out which was better. Everyone picked Gotta Go Mitts.
"Mine are much thinner and easier to put on," Dellamura said. "And the package is smaller and cheaper to make."
Now the finished products, 2.5 million mitts in 125,000 packages, sit in her basement. Dellamura invested more than $17,000 to bring her idea to market, but she expects to start making a profit in fewer than two years -- $5 at a time.
She plans to sell Gotta Go Mitts on her website, on eBay, in children's catalogues and in retail stores. Great Beginnings in Gaithersburg and Bugs and Buttercups in Frederick are scheduled to carry them this week.
"Coming all this way has been such an accomplishment, but I really had to persevere through all the set backs," she said. "Now when my kids have to go, I just put the mitts on and I don't have to worry."