30 Sep 2016

Well-rested and geared up for success

  • YES!Delft
  • EIT Health

A good idea is indispensable to start a company. If anything, the EIT Health Launch Lab teaches participants that it is just that: a start.

In an effective approach pairing lectures with practice, young entrepreneurs get valuable insight into customer demands, markets and investors. Julian Jagtenberg of Somnox: “As an engineer, you've learned how to do research and to make something. The Launch Lab teaches what business means, to actually sell something on the basis of value creation for the customer. Maybe the most valuable insight is what you should not do.”

Countless people suffer from insomnia on a nightly basis. There is medication to treat it, but it has many side-effects. Four Delft students thought of another option: a robot. Not the kind that wraps or welds or stacks, but a cuddly, bean shaped soft robot. It is the kind of robot that senses a person's mood, processes it and responds by getting him or her in the right respiratory rhythm to doze away. Julian Jagtenberg: “During the Robotics minor at TU Delft, mechanical engineer Stijn Antonisse, software engineer Job Engel, electrical and software engineer Wouter Kooyman van Guldener and I as an industrial designer decided to do something about sleeping, as we knew from close by what impact sleeping problems can have.”

Idea to product

Sensors define in what stadium of sleep the Somnox-user is. The user feels the robot 'inhaling' and 'exhaling' in a relaxed pace. Jagtenberg explains: “Restless people get a made-to-measure way to make them at ease with sound, music or light of the right colour. People have the tendency to subconsciously mirror that quiet pace, which brings them in the right mood to fall asleep – and stay asleep. Furthermore, in- and exhaling in a certain rhythm influences the time-lapse before falling asleep. These two clinically proven facts were the starting point for Somnox.”

Clinical facts – but not proven with Somnox yet. “That is the phase we are currently in: getting the prototypes from suppositions based on clinical facts to objective results with test persons. We are currently talking a lot to sleep experts. A clinical claim would have added value, but it is clear to us that initially word of mouth advertising will have to do the trick. Remember we are an early stage start-up. We now have several prototypes, made with soft fabrics derived from the mattress industry. Within a year, we should have a definitive product design and in another year we should have production up and running for sales through our web shop. That is the bad news: enthusiasts will have to wait for another two years before they can buy the Somnox. And while the product is being sold, we will initiate small scale clinical testing. All things in due time.”

The Launch Lab

“Initially we wanted to participate in the Yes! Delft student project”, says Jagterberg. “But the EIT Health Launch Lab program was the perfect match for our product.” So they passed the selection. “It was made clear right from the start that everything is about value creation for the customer. It is therefore vital to know who your customer is, how he should be approached and what value means to him. Also, it is essential to learn in which way the customer is willing to pay for the product.”

It is important to form a community of customers. Investors value that enormously. 
Julian Jagtenberg, Somnox

An idea is based on a whole set of assumptions. “You first have to validate those by talking to a lot of persons who are key to your product. Throughout Europe, we've spoken to 220 stakeholders. One of the first things we've learnt is that Somnox will not solve every sleeping disorder, so we had to limit the target group. A second thing we learnt is that you shouldn't approach Dutch and German customers in the same way. In Holland, someone will buy a product when a neighbour recommends it. The German, however, will first read a publication and only then be persuaded. Such cultural differences are still very much alive.”
The Somnox partners gathered valuable connections and gained the insight they needed. “It is important to form a community of customers. Investors value that enormously. The product is not Somnox, it is the robot together with the community. The larger and the more successful the community gets, the larger our chance of corporate success. Equally important is the enthusiasm we encountered from somnologists, who are willing to support us. All in all we learn a lot on short notice, about what we should do and about what we shouldn't do, which is at least equally important.”

The region

“As Delft students we knew Yes!Delft is the place to be for us”, Jagtenberg reveals. “We have the technology, the professors, the sleep experts, the hospitals all at close hand. But only two out of ten teams in the Launch Lab were Dutch. And five foreign teams also decided to settle here. This surprised us a little. A British team we were in close contact with, for instance also decided for Delft. They tell us the incubator culture is well developed here and they value the entrepreneurial vibe, with outgoing people who are always willing to help. According to them, the atmosphere, the opportunities, the people, the resources all stimulate to get their product to the market.”

The future

Jagtenberg has his Bachelor, but the Master is still far away. “For all four of us Somnox is our life now. The ambition and the opportunities are there. Yesterday we were interviewed on the radio to apply for test persons. We were overwhelmed by the number of reactions. A lot of people wish to get rid of sleeping medication and are yearning for a solution. We are hoping to provide this solution for some of these people within two years.”

A major company has already expressed its interest. “But we are not ready to sell our 'baby' just yet. As a team, we wish to complete the product and start sales in The Netherlands and Europe. If that works out, then we'll see. For the moment it's just too much fun to part from it.”