Moonlite brings bright idea to night-night

Special to Western News

Inspired by bedtime books with her daughter Chloe, Natalie Rebot, BESc’05 (Software Engineering), created the wildly successful Moonlite, a storybook projector that displays classics such as Good Night, Moon through a cellphone flashlight and app.

A night-time ritual that began as a shadow-puppet theatre between a mother and daughter has transformed into a medley of storybook favourites playing out on ceilings across North America. The brainchild of Natalie Rebot, and her 5-1/2-year-old daughter Chloe, Moonlite is a storybook projector that displays classics such as Good Night, Moon through a cellphone flashlight and app.

The runaway success of Moonlite – following its launch in November 2017, Forbes has called it one of the top toys of 2018 and CNN has dubbed it a ‘must-have’ – has come from hard work and a little bit of magic for Rebot, BESc’05 (Software Engineering).

Moonlite works via a series of full-colour story discs. When the discs are clipped to a cellphone flashlight, they project on the ceiling of a darkened room while an accompanying app displays story text on the phone screen for the parent to read. There’s an option to play sound effects, and a music bed in the background.

Rebot conceived of the project during bedtimes with her then-pre-schooler, Chloe, who loved their nightly stories told via shadow-puppets and a flashlight. The ‘Eureka! moment’ came as Chloe kept asking for richer stories that included some of her favourite books.

Rebot developed a prototype, then crowdsourced consumer and investor interest through KickStarter, with a target of USD $20,000.

“We hit that goal in a little over 11 hours and it continued to grow from there,” she said from her office in Toronto. “It was so great to see that people from all across the world and parents really fell in love with the product.”

The enthusiasm, she believes, is that Moonlite is neither a digital product nor a book, but a bit of both – something she calls a “technology-lite, a close relative to toys.”

“If I look at the publishing industry – I’m a big reader and I love reading to my daughter – there hasn’t been such innovation in that particular segment or sector, where people can actually use it in their daily life and feel good about it.”

Moonlite is now among the popular products of toy giant Spin Master – whose principals Ronnen Harary, BA’94; Anton Rabie, HBA ’94; and Ben Varadi, HBA ’94, are all Western alumni.

Spin Master was a great fit, partly because of the Western connection and partly because the company is based in Toronto, where Rebot and her family live, she said.

“Spin Master is super forward-thinking and they’re constantly looking at different play patterns, different ways to engage children in different activities. They saw Moonlite as having the potential to scale out worldwide and having the potential to enter a new category.”

She credits her time at Western with cultivating a mindset where innovation, entrepreneurship and engineering could work together.

She arrived at Western, where her father Morris had earned an undergraduate degree and then his MD, intending to enrol in general science and business. But a student mentor helping with course selection urged her to change gears: “This guy, I wish I knew his name, said, ‘Your grades are so good, why aren’t you in engineering? You’d really like it.’”

In her first year of Engineering, she gravitated to the software field, where she learned the critical thinking skills that would cross disciplines. “We were a pretty small class, a pretty tight crew, but it was such a great foundation. The Engineering curriculum is super-difficult, but they are intense days. I feel like I really learned how to time-manage.

“We also earned you can leverage the Internet and software and technology to develop businesses. They gave us all these entrepreneurial projects where we were able to develop our own projects, come up with our own online businesses and present them. I think it pushed us outside the box where we had to see opportunities, use the tools that we were taught, all the different programming environments, and actually put things together.”

After graduating from Western and then earning an MBA from Pepperdine University in California, Rebot applied – during the depths of the U.S. recession and the dot.com bust – to an ad she saw for a job at Google. Within a few weeks, she was on her way work at the company’s offices in Boston, then in New York and finally in Toronto.

And that’s where her 4-year-old’s inspiration created a new kind of opportunity:

“I was one of those people who always had ideas. This is probably the first real idea I had that I shared with a couple of friends and family members and there was such overwhelmingly positive feedback to it that I knew I had to pursue it,” she said.

“The magic of the journey is that you can be sitting in your bedroom one night and come up with an idea and that one idea can put a huge fork in your road and suddenly you’re doing something you never thought you’d be doing.”

Developing the app was the easiest part for her. The product engineering ­– ensuring the optical lenses were fine-tuned to create a perfect image replicating the colour and clarity of the paper version of the storybook – were trickier, and she enlisted the help of an optical engineer and Spin Master’s expertise in sourcing manufacturing.

Moonlite is available at Mastermind Toys and Indigo Books in Canada and at Target stores and amazon.com in the United States, and online at mymoonlite.com. Spin Master doesn’t disclose sales figures for its products.

“I don’t think there’s any feeling quite as satisfying as seeing your idea come to life and walking into a store and seeing your product on the shelf and people love it and want to buy it. There’s almost no bigger magic than that.”

So far, 15 books are part of the portfolio, with another 40 to be added this summer. They include Uni the Unicorn (the favourite of Chloe, now 5-1/2) and The Pokey Little Puppy (Natalie’s favourite).

“I’ll pick her up (from school) and her friend will say, ‘My parents say you’re an inventor.’ At the end of the day, if I can even subconsciously inspire Chloe or one of her friends or any other mom that they too can invent things and follow those dreams, that’s a win for me.”

For Rebot, though, the more significant magic is viewing Moonlite through the eyes of her daughter.

“The whole room comes to life with her favourite stories – whether it is Good Night, Moon or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom – and suddenly the bedroom becomes part of the story. You’re really, truly immersed into the story and it’s almost like the pages are coming to life,” she said.

“On top of that, it’s this bonding moment for parent and child. With Chloe, when we’re reading Moonlite together, I hope these are some of those forever memories that will last.”