This machine learning researcher used his expertise to design an adult diaper

  • Most start-ups are focused on the problems faced by millennials.
  • Will Herlands, a machine learning researcher, is focused on adult incontinence, which tends to affect older generations.
  • He designed an adult diaper called Willow.

Will Herlands has studied machine learning at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, so he's got the kind of background that could land him a job at any of the largest technology companies.

But Herlands is working on something else: an adult diaper.

Several years ago, Herlands spoke with a urologist about the prevalence of bladder leakage – and the lack of products to deal with the problem. Through research, he found that products from Depend are thick and noisy as users walk while Thinx makes products designed to look like underwear that don't absorb much liquid.

That all leaves customers constantly on edge and leads to embarrassing situations. Herlands saw a big opportunity in a market that's valued at about $8 billion globally.

His mission is to design a product that is both absorbent, holding up to a liter of water, and feels invisible so the customer can forget about it.

He thinks he's achieved it with Willow's underwear, which is now available in male and female packs. It comes in three colors (grey, black and sand) and costs about $50 for a package of 60 pairs. Willow will also deliver right to the home, so there's no need to stand in a checkout line.

"We were trying to make something that if you would see it, you would never think this is a diaper," Herlands told CNBC.

Willow

About 25 million people in the U.S. have some kind of incontinence. It impacts about 30 to 40 percent of older women and about 15 percent of men. It's common for women after pregnancy.

Adult incontinence has only recently caught the attention of Silicon Valley's investors and entrepreneurs. Herlands says that's because most companies are started by millennials, who haven't thought much about this problem or experienced it. He wanted to get a sense for what it was like to wear the current products on the market, so he personally tried out dozens of options.

Willow has raised about $2.5 million from investors, including FirstMark Capital, Two River and Wildcat Capital Management. Its other co-founders were previously at contact subscription company Hubble, which has raised more than $73 million in venture capital.