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What started as a physician’s idea to help protect patients’ teeth has grown into a decade-old business that supplies dental protection for sports, dentistry and medical use all over the world. Akervall Technologies, based in Saline, Michigan, recently marked its 10-year anniversary, celebrating the development of its SISU line of sports and nighttime mouthguards. The company has grown to 20+ employees and $5 million in sales, and was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing U.S. companies for three years in a row. Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies, gave Endeavor a snapshot of what it has been like to take her business from startup to scaleup.
How did the idea for your company start?
The idea came to Jan, my husband, who had designed working prototypes for surgery to protect his patients’ teeth during intubations. When he realized that our daughter needed a mouthguard in order to play sports, he immediately wanted to try using his idea on her and her teammates. We already knew that this mouthguard had so many advantages over regular mouthguards. For instance, the material is hard but turns soft in hot water and molds perfectly to your teeth while letting you talk, breathe and drink, without any problems. In addition, we also knew that the material was incredibly strong, despite how thin it is. When we realized how well it adapted to the athletic market, we decided to start by breaking in there. At that point it was only me at the kitchen table, starting absolutely bootstrapped. This has been the way we have built the company and how we still operate today, without any outside investors.
What aspect of your product are you most proud of?
We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of cutting-edge technology within our segment, which is why we are always thinking of new products and how to improve the ones we have. We have received several federal grants which enabled us to set up (and keep) a science department. All in all, we are a little over 20 people and it is incredibly exciting to have a full team diligently working towards the same goal — to protect teeth around the world.
One product innovation I’m particularly proud of is our SISU® Sense mouthguard which has a microchip embedded in it. This chip measures impact to the head and sends the data to an app on your phone. Without diagnosing anything, we make this real-time information available to anyone connected to the app. That way the athlete, coach, parent or whomever has access, can track how many hits to the head of a certain force have taken place.
What is the wildest issue you’ve had to work through as an entrepreneur?
That would be our quest to find the right manufacturing partner. We have had our fair share of unsuccessful partnerships along the way. One of them decided to stop delivering our POs — without telling us. There we were, with customers putting orders in that we were not able to fulfill. Our shelves were dry for about 4 months. That is when we found another manufacturer who started out great, but who also turned into a complete bust. I think we have struck gold with our present manufacturer, who has all the traits we have been looking for — loyalty, transparency, work ethic, just to mention a few. But the biggest advantage is that this manufacturer is literally across the street. I see their manufacturing plant from my office windows!
How would you describe the stage of growth your company is in right now?
We are in our tenth year now, and our ninth year of growing! This is pretty amazing given the fact that we haven’t taken any outside investment. We are growing steadily, in spite of a lot of company consolidations going on in our market. We are now scaling up to launch more products, but we have to be very strategic about how we spend our money.
How important has having the right network been to your growth?
Meeting some of the mentors from Endeavor has been great. One that stands out is of course meeting Lynda Applegate, whom I was just so in awe of from the first moment I heard her speak. I was lucky enough to attend a two-day seminar for female entrepreneurs through Harvard and Lynda was one of the professors teaching there. As it so happened, the CEO and COO of the Grommet, one of the case studies Lynda presented, was actually present so Lynda introduced me to them. We continue to do a lot of business through the Grommet because of that connection.
We have also been in the fortunate situation where a lot of our business has come through vendors or partners contacting us. Our products are so unique that they create a buzz around them as soon as we launch them. In one case, global ice hockey brand CCM contacted us and wanted to co-brand a product. Today, that is one of our biggest customers and we have been in business together for 5 years.
Has being in Southeast Michigan been beneficial to your growth?
When we started out, I didn’t know what I know now — Michigan is a great place for an entrepreneur. There are many resources available and of course Endeavor is one of them. There are also a lot of other great organizations that can be helpful for entrepreneurs, as well as entrepreneurship grants available through the State of Michigan. My best advice is to take the time to look into what is out there — it’s worth it.
What can we expect from Akervall in the future?
I’m proud to say that we continue to be a truly innovative company. There are many new and cool products coming in 2020 — we have several patents, not just in the dental space. I’m looking forward to seeing where these and other products will take us next year. Stay tuned.
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