Before co-inventing the SleepAngel pillow, David Woolfson had to comfort his own daughter who became the victim of an unclean pillow. The result was scabies on the face, a condition marked by itchy skin due to mites that burrow into the epidermis.
“She picked it up from a guest bed pillow in England,” muses Woolfson, co-founder of Dublin, Ireland-based Gabriel Scientific, makers of the SleepAngel pillow. “Seeing her suffer from scabies gave me a massive motivation to come up with something to prevent that type of thing from happening to someone else.”
As distressing as the scabies episode, it soon became clear to Woolfson and co-founder Billy Navan that so-called “super bugs” were on the rise in various hospitals. Ward closures, infected patients, and even fatalities threatened the quality of care even in top-notch facilities.
Navan supplied textile-based products to hospitals in Ireland, and his customers confirmed that there was a need for new technology to better protect patients from bedding-related equipment. “Billy spoke with a seamstress at a major hospital who reported that every time she repaired a pillow she got an infection in her eyes,” says Woolfson. “Billy knew I was into research, and he asked if I could come up with a solution.”
Armed with know-how, demand, and personal motivation, Woolfson researched literature about the importance of preventing “strike through,” which is essentially the passage of microbes and pathogens to the interior of a mattress. He found a lot of attention devoted to mattresses, but little or nothing about the role of pillows.
“A pillow is just a little mattress for your head where you are most vulnerable, because that’s where you breathe, and it makes contact with eyes and ears, nose and mouth—all points of infection ingress,” says Woolfson. “There was no particular standard or design criteria with pillows, and they were the elephant in the room—not just in hospitals but for people in rehab facilities, nursing homes, and those taking overnight polysomnography tests in sleep labs.”
Woolfson and Navan figured that if they could block the passage of contaminants from getting to the interior, those same contaminants would not be allowed to flourish. “The interior of pillows and mattresses is like a petri dish in that it’s warm and moist,” explains Woolfson. “It’s cellular, and it’s a perfect environment for these pathogens to prosper.”
The solution was a hermetically sealed cushioning device with a bacteriological filter. The filter is also hermetically sealed onto a window on the cushioning device, effectively blocking the route of pathogens into or out of the product. The highly specialized “micro-porous filter composite” is sealed onto an aperture that fits onto a comfortable cushioning device using proprietary processes. “Whether it’s for the home, hotel, hospital, or sleep lab, it has to be comfortable,” adds Woolfson. “Your pillow must be able to inhale and exhale so that it can shape and drape to your body and be comfortable.”
The filter composite, its application, and its method of application are either patent granted or patent pending in every primary market in the world. Specifically, Europe and China are patent granted, while the U.S. market is patent pending. Woolfson says exports to the far east are going well, and the product is resonating with customers down under in Australia and New Zealand.
The Opposite of Bedding Protection
SleepAngel is not bedding protection, a common misconception that Woolfson is keen to dispel. “The idea of mattress and pillow protectors is to protect the mattress or pillow from you, whereas ours is the opposite,” explains Woolfson. “SleepAngel protects you from the mattress and pillow. It will also protect itself because it’s stain resistant and will stop even the smallest of contaminants from getting in. However, its primary benefit is that it reduces exposure to triggers, especially for asthma and allergy sufferers. For the general population, it’s a way of having a more hygienic product.”
Irish Innovation: A Conversation with the Co-Inventor of Sleep Angel
Sleep Diagnosis & Therapy (SDT): Why would hospitals and sleep labs be interested in the SleepAngel Pillow?
David Woolfson, (co-founder of Dublin, Ireland-based Gabriel Scientific, maker of the SleepAngel pillow): Hospitals are looking for durability—something that is going to retain its shape as long as possible and provide support when patients are sitting up. When they buy our pillow, they are looking for something that is a significant improvement in terms of infection prevention and control.
How has SleepAngel performed as a cash/retail item?
Woolfson: We’re in some of the main retail outlets in Ireland and the UK. They are looking for different things. SleepAngel is so clearly different and offers benefits like no other product so it gives the retailer unique selling points and benefits to pass on to the consumer. In the US, it is available to the DME sector through our channel partner, Transcend/Somnetics, and the early feed back from both is tremendous.
Can you put the proprietary cover over any type of pillow filler?
Woolfson: We now find that if we put our cover over memory foam, then you have a lovely memory foam pillow, but with the added bonus of SleepAngel hygiene. It won’t succumb to that process whereby all other pillow products become colonized over time with dust mites, allergens, and sometimes mold or worse. If we put our cover over micro-fiber or synthetic down pillow or pillow filling, you’ve got a really comfortable fluffy soft pillow. It’s whatever your comfort preference is plus the added bonus of our scientifically proven cover with a filter.
How would you describe the pillow in a line or two?
Woolfson: It’s the pillow with a filter. That’s the best way to explain it.
How heavily have you explored the consumer market?
Woolfson: In the United States, our channel partner Transcend/Somnetics has presented and sold SleepAngel into a wide number of DME’s and Sleep Labs. Pillows are important to people and big business these days so having a differentiated product with good margins is what retailers are looking for. The consumer soft furnishings version of SleepAngel has had an overwhelmingly positive response from the main national retail groups we have presented to. We believe that the publicity generated by an appearance in October/November on a national shopping channel will help drive awareness amongst people at home and recognition of the brand generally.
What type of improvements and/or changes do you plan to make?
Woolfson: We have been given homework—as in we need to have a range of options. You can’t just have one pillow. We need various sizes and descriptors on our packaging. We need more sizing and comfort options. We have a great story to tell which is the filtered pillow—that will stay clean and provide the right sleeping micro-climate.
The next thing is to offer mattresses and mattress tops with our cover technology. Further down the road we have a kind of travel pillow cover. It has a re-sealable closure that is air tight. So you take your hotel pillow, put it inside this, seal it closed —— healthy and hygienic sleep guaranteed, and you then take it with you the next day.
What do you hope the company will look like in 5 years?
Woolfson: The best-case scenario is to cement a reputation as a trusted technology and consumer brand. I’d like to see SleepAngel be recognized for it’s important functionality and consumer benefit in hospitals, hotels, sleep labs, and in the home. Hotels are really important. You’re really vulnerable because you are sleeping on whatever the other person left there the night before.
What do you say to skeptics who may question the claims you have made?
Woolfson: There are so many iffy claims made that are not provable. The difference with our product is that it is backed by sound science. We’ve just gone through the most stringent testing probably ever devised for bedding products in conjunction with a global leader in home environment testing—an organization with a license from the Asthma/Allergy Foundation of America. They have never tested something that is as effective as our product in this category. This is the first time they have come across a product that is a 100% barrier with air flow. These are not just claims. It is not hocus pocus. It is a scientifically proven product.
How competitive is this product category?
Woolfson: At the moment there are no direct competitors in terms of our proprietary product design and functionality. There is a category, and it is the fastest growing one in the bedding industry, and with the most added value—probably because it offers the most in terms of comfort to the consumer—and that is called specialty sleep. The global leader in specialty sleep is Tempur-Pedic. I see SleepAngel as the global leader in a new Healthy Sleep Cetegory.
What are consumers willing to pay in the specialty sleep category?
Woolfson: When it comes to specialty sleep, the price range for a specialty sleep pillow, whether it’s latex, gel, memory foam, duck down, or goose down—you’re in for $80 to $120 per unit. That is our competitive landscape. You get pillows that retail for more than $200 if you want to go into Hungarian goose down or the gel pillows. There is major demand amongst consumers for products that provide a special benefit, or added features, in the price bracket between $80 and $100 at retail. Our typical price range at DME retail is $80-$90.