Lighting Up Lives
How a Starkville Start-Up and Sesame Street Joined Forces to Support Families
Words by Mary Kate McGowan
An ice cube that does not melt can lead to fewer meltdowns.
A few years ago, Mississippi State University (MSU) students started making automatic, lighted drink infusers for cocktails. Today, this technology is making a difference for families living with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and sensory processing disorders (SPDs).
Hagan Walker and Anna Barker were two of those MSU students. Nurtured by MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Outreach, or E-Center, they graduated and formed a start-up they called Glo in 2017. With Walker as CEO and Barker as vice president of business development, the co-founders turned down high-ticket jobs to stay in Starkville.
Glo creates and sells liquid-activated, light-up plastic cubes. Today, Glo is leading Starkville’s start-up scene. The company saw early success with their cubes used in bars, restaurants, and wedding celebrations. “They became a big fish in a small pond,” said Jeffrey Rupp, director of outreach at MSU’s E-Center.
And then, one customer’s feedback steered Glo in an unexpected direction. A mother discovered a Glo cube in her cocktail one night. That small cube sparked a big idea. She promptly took it home to evaluate her hypothesis.
“The first thing she thought about when she saw that it turned on in water was her son, Bishop, who was four years old at the time, autistic, and terrified of the bath,” said Barker. “She contacted us, and she was like, ‘I want you guys to know that this is the first time in months that he has taken a bath without having to basically be forced to do so. That might not sound like a whole lot to you guys, but this is his everyday routine,’” said Barker.
Bishop and his mother sparked a bigger conversation at Glo. “We started asking, ‘Why did it help him overcome his fear of the bath? Why was he afraid of the bath to begin with? What are the reasons that children would not like the bath, and how could this technology help them overcome it?’” said Barker.
Glo found it is common for children on the autism spectrum and/or who have a sensory processing disorder to dislike bathing, often because of overstimulation.
“A lot of research shows that if you can redirect their senses to something that they associate with as a positive and to something that they enjoy, it can help them overcome that sensory overload,” she said.
Glo had a renewed purpose: to create Glo Pals—liquid-activated light-up sensory toys that children can play with while in the water to give them something positive to associate with bath time. Glo launched Glo Pals in 2018, and they took off. About 2,000 retailers—including Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Macy's—sell Glo Pals across the United States and Canada, and the cubes have been shipped to 36 countries.
Then, another conversation, this time at the Dallas Toy Fair in 2019, changed everything—again. And that conversation blossomed into a partnership with Sesame Workshop—the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street. As part of Sesame Street’s goal to provide resources, support, and tools to promote better understanding of ASD and reduce stigma, Sesame Street introduced Julia, the first Muppet with autism, in 2015.
“The first thing I did after our initial meeting with Sesame Workshop was to watch all the episodes with Julia, and I read the books. They loved that we knew about her, so we were one of the first people that ever got to license [Julia],” said Barker.
Fast-forward to April 2021. Glo released Julia and Elmo as the newest Glo Pals.
Sesame Workshop adds more research-based content and resources every year to its programming, said Gabriela Arenas, Sesame Workshop's vice president of licensing for North America. “This year, we're proud to work with Glo, an inspiring young company whose mission to make a difference aligns with our long history of helping kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder through engaging activities and so much more,” she said.
Working with Sesame Workshop—especially as Glo’s first licensing partnership—has been rewarding, according to Barker. “What's so cool is that when you think about early childhood development and the kid space, we are on the exact opposite end of the scale. We are the epitome of a start-up. Sesame Street could not be more different. They have over 50 years of this really remarkable footprint on the children's space,” she said.
The power of this partnership is lighting up families’ homes, helping make everyday tasks a little easier.
Early this year, Glo is set to release more Muppet characters as Glo Pals: Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby. Learn more about Glo Pals at https://glopals.com/.