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Featured Business: SleepAngel
Name: David Woolfson, Chief Executive, Gabriel Scientific
Industry: Gabriel Scientific specialises in biomedical engineering for healthier sleep. Its brand, SleepAngel, is a patented filtered bedding, which is supplied to public health services and the medical sector in Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The early target market in retail is asthma allergy sufferers, but it has a wider appeal to people who are looking for more hygienic products in the home.
Employees: Eight, and expected to double by 2014
When you put two heads together that have expertise in different areas, great things can happen. Gabriel Scientific, the company behind the innovative SleepAngel pillow, is an example of how collaboration can result in head-turning innovation.
The company has developed PneumaPure Filter™ Technology, which is clinically proven to block the contaminants that trigger asthma, allergy and sinus conditions, and is used in the SleepAngel pillow.
Gabriel Scientific was co-founded by David Woolfson and Billy Navan. David’s family ran Kayfoam Woolfson (now known as Kaymed), an award-winning mattress specialist known for its innovation and devotion to R&D, while Billy supplied textile-based products and medical devices to the Irish healthcare sector.
While working in the family business, David’s area was innovation and product development, where he gained experience in the patent and IP area, which proved to be valuable for Gabriel Scientific.
It was a natural step, therefore, for Billy to approach David about a solution to cross-contamination, after a hospital seamstress told Billy that every time she repaired pillows she got an infection in her eye.
One of the highlights for the company’s founders is receiving feedback on how their innovative pillow has helped people with serious conditions.
Interview with David Woolfson
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
The inspiration was the problem. The problem was contaminated bedding in hospitals creating a risk of cross-infecting patients. There wasn’t a design that could solve that problem. In the home there are bedding protection products, but they’re not adequate to block the type of micro-size contaminants that can affect people during the night.
What have been the highlights to date?
A major milestone was in June 2011 after we completed clinical trials in St Bart’s, a London hospital. There was a conference and a paper given by St Bart’s hospital, which was picked up by The Times in the UK. There was a whole page in The Times about the problem and how we could uniquely solve it. That was a major milestone. In 2012 we won an all-island innovation award from The Irish Times / Intertrade Ireland Innovation Awards. We’ve also had some really good milestones, with major customers coming on board.
How did you initially fund your business?
Shareholder capital investment. AIB came in at a very early stage and supported us on the basis that they took a view regarding the intellectual property of the company and the profile of the companies we were starting to deal with.
Enterprise Ireland came in with one of their investment redeemable preference share arrangements.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Only in the sense that there are diverse applications for the original filtered device technology. One of those would be in veterinary. We’ve other IP in the pipeline but we’re focusing on the core technology.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I think it’s because you can shape the business the way you think is right. For example, you can have flexible arrangements with staff to suit their work-life balance. I think that type of flexibility engenders greater motivation.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s difficult, it really is – especially if you’re in the growth phase in the business, because there’s a lot of travel. I’m very disciplined when it’s time off; having a particular block of time where I’ll see what’s going on and, other than that, I switch off.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Quite a few actually. Dyson – particularly in our sector – a household product that has, through innovation and really clever marketing, become almost an aspirational household product. Similar to us, their early adopters were people with asthma and allergy conditions. That was their early breakthrough, especially in the US market. They’ve gone on to be something for every household. We see ourselves in a very similar space.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We’ve started to use project management software – that’s free on the internet – called Gantt. We find that very good. And, of course, Skype is amazing. We use it for video conferencing, we use it for calls, we use it if our sales guys overseas are checking in.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We stay updated by attending conferences and trade shows, because you’re dealing with the people who deal with our customers. We get a lot of comments back through retailers from their customers. I have to say they’re mostly positive, but when they’re negative they’re very instructive as well.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
One challenge was securing a continuity of supply for critical materials we must use to create the product that we have. The other challenge is finding the right channel partners. You can’t do the direct selling in most of your export markets; you need to find the right channel partners who are capable of understanding the product, its advantages, upselling, selling added value.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
Finding the contemporary skill set in any sector is very hard because people who qualified two or three years ago – the skills they qualified with are constantly becoming outdated. On one hand, you have a lot of people looking for jobs, but in many cases they’re not up to speed on what the skill set needs to be; on the other hand, you have companies that are trying to find those people and, if they can’t get them from the indigenous courses, they’re going to be bringing them in.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I think business development – sales and alliances with key bodies and groupings, whether that’s asthma associations or retail groups. Office admin and the administration side is something I constantly have to learn.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
I’d love to say financial, but it’s too early.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The main catalyst is the uniqueness of our technology.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Growth will only come for us, in any meaningful way, through export. The key for us to be able to scale, in terms of export, is the self-assembly form and finding partners in the export markets who can complete the assembly of the products. International trade shows have been huge for us in terms of finding the right partners, showing them our product and meeting the team.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
Although we’re small, there’s some quality in the management team. Between the tradeshows, the management team and the research we do, that’s how we go about it.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
The journey – just enjoy it.
What’s your vision for the future?
We have a vision that our technology – SleepAngel – becomes the promise of proven functionality, reliability and consumer benefit in the hospital, the hotel and the home.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Resources and the slowness of the compliance process when you’re working with medical devices. Every time we’re looking to work with a healthcare partner in export markets, we have to go through the same audit and compliance process, and that can be very time-consuming.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
Our own chairman, Paddy Walsh, is like a mentor to me now. Before that, my father Solly Woolfson – when he was around – and my brother Saul.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Critical, and the most basic one of all, which many people overlook: Know your product.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
French essayist Roland Barthes said at one stage, “God is in the detail” which I prefer. We’re always told, “The devil is in the detail.”
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Have a mix of older, wiser owls, as well as young Turks. We found, in the early stage especially, that we benefited from having non-execs or shareholders who were retired or semi-retired and had good, prudent advice we wouldn’t have known about.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I wouldn’t hire any sales consultant, ever; and I wouldn’t do public service trade shows. When you’ve got something new, you’ll only make it work with great passion and great understanding of it. Not even the sales consultants that have the best track record can match what the people who own or run the business can do.
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