Did you ever lie down on a plush hotel pillow and wonder how many heads have been there before you? What about when you’re admitted to hospital - how many sick people have previously recovered on that very pillow, are they making you sicker?
David Woolfson and Billy Navan, two men from the Emerald Isle of Ireland have crafted a solution to eradicate the bacteria, dust mites and allergens that can inhabit a pillow and best of all - it is a chemical free solution. IrishCentral chatted with David Woolfson this week to speak about SleepAngel; the pillow disrupting today’s sleepy bedding industry..
David, tell us a little about your company: When did it form?
SleepAngel ® was formed in April 2009 – when the Irish economy was going into meltdown. People said we were “nuts”, but Billy Navan (the co-founder) and I, our families and friends plus the support of Enterprise Ireland got it off the ground.
What was the inspiration behind SleepAngel?
There was a serious unsolved problem in healthcare and multiple user bedding plus a real consumer need in the home for a product like this. On a personal note, my wife and daughter suffer badly with allergies. Also, about 3 years previously, my daughter picked up a facial infection from a contaminated pillow in a hotel. My co-founder, Billy Navan, was talking to the seamstress as she worked in a Munster hospital and she said to him “you know Billy, every time I repair the pillows, I get an infection in my eyes”.
In terms of the actual innovation, we come from a place (Ireland) where the air and water are purer than in most countries. We did not want to add to the bacteria-cides and anti-microbials being used in a lot of products. The challenge was to design an innovation that did its job of work mechanically or physically rather than chemically, which we achieved.
What exactly does SleepAngel solve?
The evidence is clear – pillows can be reservoirs and vectors for infection and infestation. In other words - germs, mold, allergens and dust mites (and sometimes the dreaded bedbugs) build up in pillows over time. Where we place our head is where we are vulnerable – eyes, ears, mouth, nose – so we can be tucked up in bed at home but breathing in these things which can be triggers for asthma, allergy, sinus problems or just impairing our quality of sleep. Protectors etc. are hopelessly inadequate. Nobody had designed a solution to the problem until SleepAngel.
Tell us, what kind of changes did the product go through in its early stages?
There was a journey in terms of materials and marketing for the retail pillow from 'medical device' look and feel, to 'luxury pillow' with a filter with its unique benefit. Like all design stories, the product today, looks and feels very different to version we introduced at the start. I often think of suitcases, in the 80’s everybody had to lug their bags around airports, now nobody would think of buying a suitcase without built-in wheels! Over time I think it will be the same regarding filtered bedding.
Are you looking for further investment now that you're breaking into the US?
We recognize that you can only get so far trying remotely to grow a business in the USA and Canada from Ireland. So, yes we are looking at funding options to build and drive the business in the US.
What kind of growth has your company experienced?
On the medical side we have quickly become a premier supplier to the NHS in the UK, to hospitals in Denmark and Switzerland. More recently, we have won significant contracts to supply into the burgeoning Arab Health market – Dubai and Saudi Arabia. On the retail side, we are enjoying success with UK department store group Debenhams and in the Middle East with Intercoil. March 2015 sees our coast-to-coast launch with Bed Bath and Beyond, an amazing retailer committed to their customers.
How many markets have you broken into now?
We supply to customers or distributors in the US, Europe, Middle East and China and our products are now used in many hospitals and homes globally.
Tell us about your industry: What was it like to break into the bedding industry with a product like this?
In our world we were hugely disruptive. Pillow and mattress shops are just a sea of white rectangles with very little genuine differentiation, but lots of “big” claims. We come along with a patented innovation that has a real consumer benefit and crucially, it is backed by sound science.
How have you shaken things up in the pillow-world?
In hospitals, the response from the professionals is often a rolling of the eyes and an “of course”. From consumers at home we get incredible feedback that is very genuine. From the everyman/everywoman who “sleeps better, feels better” to the asthma/allergy/sinus sufferers who tell us the incredible impact SleepAngel has had.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced since you started the company?
To forego opportunities. The innovation is very seductive. People in all walks get excited and see applications. Before, we used to wander those exciting paths with them, but we have learned that you have to make the core offering successful first.
What's been the greatest victory for SleepAngel?
There have been some sweet purchase orders but being up on the stage with the team in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin receiving the All-Ireland Innovation Award from President Michael D. Higgins as Gaeilge, is up there. Some of the top multi-nationals with Irish HQ’s had entered the competition and it was sponsored by the likes of Paypal and Accenture. Duncan (Dr. Bain), our Scottish CTO wore his kilt (authentically, because he changed in my office), Paddy our GAA loving Chairman said it was like winning the Sam Maguire, and I remembered my Gaelic scholar father as I said my cúpla focal.
What's been the most important lesson?
That you can’t keep learning lessons, there comes a time when you just have to get it right.
What are your plans for 2015?
We plan to build our profile and trust with the American consumer. Start supplying US hospitals and continue growing in all export markets.
What international markets do you foresee the SleepAngel expanding into?
USA, Canada, Middle East and China are our priority growth markets.
Will maintaining your identity as an Irish company be important to SleepAngel, or are you seeking to brand yourself differently?
We think we have brought some of our values of warmth and friendship to our relationships with customers and channel partners. We want that to continue. Also, “purity”, not doing it with chemicals or bacteria-cides is important to us and connected to our origin.
How can the Irish American diaspora help you?
We have an interesting crew and we have a story but most of all, we have a product that brings genuine benefit backed by sound science. We want, of course, to bring that to the diaspora and ultimately, to everyone.
To find your nearest Bed, Bath & Beyond store or to purchase SleepAngel online, click here.
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