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Photo Credit: Sassa Akervall

Swedish Immigrant Helps Reinvent the Mouthguard Industry

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If you have taken any sort of look at the landscape of business recently then one thing should be very apparent. There is literally a business for everything. There are companies which deliver entire meals to your door, businesses which deliver ‘glitter’ bombs, subscription boxes for pets and people alike, and the list goes on. Entrepreneurs are continuously discovering that if you find a place, you can create a company. Finding a gap in the market can turn an idea into an amazing step for a potential business. It’s a premise Sassa Akervall, CEO of SISU Mouthguard, is familiar with. We had the chance to speak with Sassa to learn more about her background, SISU, and the amazing finance pathway SISU has followed.

Can you tell is why you started Akervall Technologies and a little about your business background?

My husband Dr. Jan Akervall, MD PhD, an Ear Nose and Throat doctor with Head and Neck cancer as his subspecialty, invented the mouthguard in order to protect his patients’ teeth better during oral surgeries with heavy instruments. At that time, the mouthguards offered to the doctors in the OR were all a simple piece of rubber offering very little protection for the teeth. Jan was all but happy about that and designed his own mouthguard that he started using. Up until now, around 1000 endoscopic surgeries later, he has never knocked out a tooth on a patient. Once he understood how well this device protected teeth, we discussed the possibility of bringing something like this to the sports market. You might wonder why we thought there would be a need for yet another mouthguard on a market already crowded with the old fashioned guards. But the beauty of our idea was that our mouthguard was totally different. It was thin, letting the athlete talk, breathe and drink while using it. In addition, after having performed tests, we realized it was also much stronger than anything else on the market.  We tested it out on our daughter who was then playing field hockey in middle school. She loved the mouthguard because of its many advantages. Then her teammates loved it and then….it just kept on taking off from there.  At that point, Jan thought that it would be a great idea for me to actually make a business out of this. My background is in media. I’m a journalist and a children’s author, I have had my own production company and I have worked in television. In other words I knew nothing about mouthguards. But that was then….:-)

Has your immigration from Sweden had any impact on how you approach your business?

I would like to say yes it has. Like I mentioned, I had no experience from building a business like this. But as I tried to find my own path in this, it became clear that there are MANY resources for small startups in Ann Arbor, and today throughout Michigan. For instance, Ann Arbor Spark, who supports high tech and innovative business locally, helped us in many ways. I got helped with talent search, boot camp for small startups, microloan…the list goes on and on. It has been a great ride not only for our business, but also for me personally as well. When you have to get to where you want to be, you are forced out of your comfort zone in order to accomplish things. And I have had to step out of my comfort zone more than once…J One thing I have found during these years is that I’m very entrepreneurial. I love to navigate my own way, figure things out, and I take great satisfaction when things come together as anticipated. At the same time, I can be very hard on myself when things don’t work out. Luckily, things come together more often than they don’t. But I will say that coming from another country and being successful in something you knew nothing about beforehand, creating something sustainable, being able to employ people and contribute to the local and national economy – I must say I feel like this must be the American Dream we are living.

Where do you see your business 5 years from now?

We proud ourselves of being a company on the cutting edge of technology. In addition we have a fantastic marketing team and a sales team that are successfully plugging away every day, many many hours. We also have a scientific team, consisting of three chemical engineers in addition to Jan, who is the founder and the inventor. The science team is funded by an SBIR grant from NSF and we are very proud to be among the few companies in the country that actually have been funded. So far we have received a Phase 1 (from DoD) and Phase 2 (from NSF).  Even though our company now consists of so many different teams, marketing, sales, production, fulfillment, sales and R & D, I think it is important to give people opportunities to develop within their team. In addition, I believe in transparency so communication is very important. There is constantly a risk of information not being given, and the consequences can be severe if not properly handled. It happens everywhere, it happens in our company. But we are working on being better on this. There is no doubt in my mind that our disruptive technology will cause some commotion in our market segment. I see that as only good, because to be honest, there has been no technical advancement on the mouthguard market for the last 70 years. The conventional mouthguards you find on the shelves are still made from the same material as when the modern (at that time) came out on the market. If you think about it, would you be wearing protection gear today that was made in the 1950’s? Probably not. Then why would you want to have a mouthguard built on that technology, when there is something better and smarter already around? Having said this, in five years I think that with a team this dedicated, talented, creative and fun, the sky really is the limit. But to put it more in concrete words and referring back to our core product; We want to be the Golden Standard of mouthguards globally, where we can take great pride and comfort in that we are saving teeth globally. This is what has brought us this far – the dedication among the team. I think we all love what we are doing and I think that by giving people room to grow, there is a constant exchange among our team members to come up with new and enhanced products, as well as products in new segments.

Your company produces solid revenue – what advice do you have for companies struggling to keep things even revenue-wise?

We brought a product to the market that you cannot find anywhere else, and in addition a product there is a need and high demand for. This made it possible for us to demand payment on order and consequently we had almost no A/R for the first couple of years. Once we started to grow, getting distributors etc, we had to succumb to terms, but for the first couple of years, we were able to grow the company on the revenue stream. I realize this is a very unusual way of growing, and today I’m very grateful for the fantastic start we had. We were in the black already after 2 years! If I was to give advice I would say that keeping cost as low as possible, self fund when possible (we are totally self funded), and look around for what help for small businesses are out there. The answer isn’t always VC’s or angels. Sometimes a great advisory board can be just as useful.

Can you share some advice on how entrepreneurs can go about making the right connections to help lift their business off the ground?

I think I have touched on this several times, but again, check out what is available around you. Ann Arbor Spark isn’t the only organization helping companies around. There are many more, just in the state of Michigan. Some of them are state funded some of them are not. But never the less, there is help to get, but you might have to search for it. Starting a business is a tough decision. Dedication and determination are two characteristics needed. A well-diversified advisory board, willing to answer phone calls and have discussions on regular basis are also priceless help, that I have been fortunate enough to take advantage of.

What is your best advice for entrepreneurs and business owners on how to keep their company on positive grounds?

Travel light, don’t overinvest in office space or a production facility until you know you have customers and sales, try to outsource and use consultants before committing to full time employees. Find a niche market that you can dominate; it gives you revenues and valuable information about customers. Always look at the competition and learn from what they do. Don’t hesitate to look at other businesses and markets and learn from them. Network with other entrepreneurs and learn from their experiences. Read a lot; go to seminars, look outside your area of expertise for knowledge. Participate in business competitions; it teaches you to describe your business and fine tune what you do. Follow the data, and this is probably the most important issue; don’t guess – data from research, consumer data, financial data, any data related to your business. If you read it right, it will lead you to success. Follow the principle of: Analyze, conclude, hypothesize, implement, evaluate, and adjust.

Sassa Akervall has a BA in communication. Before becoming CEO and  majority owner of Akervall technologies Inc. (ATI) she worked as a copywriter, TV host for her own shows, TV producer and children’s author. She has taken ATI from the kitchen table with $5k in revenues 2009 to 16 employees, 60% annual grow rate, $2.6M in projected revenues for 2015, owning her own plant, and with global partners like Reebok/CCM. She has won several awards, e.g. “Accelerate Michigan – Advanced Materials” in 2014, 2015 and “50 companies to watch in Michigan 2014”. In 2015 she also received an honorary mention as “Enterprising Women of the Year. In April 2016 she will receive the STEP Award from the Manufacturing Institute, recognizing women in manufacturing within the STEM-field. She is an active  member of SBAM’s Leadership Council and SBAM’s Leadership Council Advisory Board.  She is married to Jan, co-founder and inventor of the products, and they have two children, Miriam 22 and Isak 19. She also has two other “kids”, Stella (3) and Artie (2) both Black Russian Terriers.

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