If you build a better mouthguard, the world will beat a path to your door.
Or, at least send you an email and ask you to become a supplier.
Akervall Technologies Inc. of Saline, Mich., has built a lighter, thinner, stronger mouthguard, both for athletes and for those who grind their teeth while sleeping. So far, the innovation is paying off.
The company was officially founded in 2008 but started getting traction in 2010 after taking part in an entrepreneurial boot camp hosted by economic group Ann Arbor Spark.
It had sales of $1.4 million in 2014 and $2.6 million in 2015 and projects sales of $4.2 million in 2016 that will grow to $12.6 million in 2018.
CCM, the iconic Canadian brand that has been making skates for decades for everyone from peewees to National Hockey League players, has been selling Akervall's mouthguards since March as a result of the retail equivalent of a man-bites-dog story — an executive in Montreal heard about the Akervall mouthguard and sent the company an email introducing himself and saying he might want to be a customer.
Later this month, 2,100 of the 8,000 Walgreens drugstores in the U.S. will start carrying the mouthpieces, with a national rollout to follow. Details of a rollout in another national drug chain are expected to be finalized soon.
And, in August, Akervall was named the official mouthguard of the National Lacrosse League.
Akervall Technologies was named the top company in the advanced materials category at the last two recent Accelerate Michigan Innovation events at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, winning $25,000 each time.
Unlike most of her fellow finalists at the competition, President and co-founder Sassa Akervall wasn't looking for investments from angel investors or venture capitalists. Akervall is cash-flow positive and capable of funding growth from revenue.
Dan Asma, president of Warren, Mich.-based McKeon Products Inc. — a seller of ear protection equipment at drugstores — heard about Akervall's mouthpieces through a friend of his company's CEO, Devin Benner, and met with Akervall co-founder and CEO Jan Akervall, Sassa's husband, last year.
"We had been talking about diversifying into other product categories, and Jan and I thought we could leverage each other's strengths. Theirs is innovation, and ours is working with retailers," said Asma.
McKeon is selling Akervall's LunaGuard Nighttime Dental Protector brand at drugstores in Ohio, New York and the East Coast.
Asma said final details on a deal with another national drug chain are being worked out, and he expects the mouthguards to be in those stores soon.
"Akervall's mouthguards are so much better than traditional mouthguards," said Asma. "Because they're so thin, they're very comfortable. Because they are made of thermoplastic that is re-moldable. If you don't get the fit quite right the first time, you drop it in warm water and remold it. And you can't bite through it the way you can with other mouthguards."
Mathieu Filiatrault-Giroux is a North American product manager for CCM in Montreal. CCM is part of the Canton, Mass.-based Reebok International Ltd.
He said the traditional mouthguards CCM had sold for decades were long criticized for their bulkiness and ineffectiveness. Players had difficulty speaking with them in their mouths, didn't like the way they felt, and suffered loss of teeth even when wearing them.
He said he spends a lot of time visiting retailers and early in 2014 was told about a new mouthguard someone in Michigan was making.
"I went on their website and got a generic e-mail address and sent a note introducing myself," he said. "It's really rare for us to reach out to a company. Usually, they reach out to us.
"These are extremely thin. They have breathability, and they have a fit that is on the level of a dentist-made custom mouthguard," he said.
He said CCM validated Akervall's claims about strength and better protection through energy dispersion.
CCM began selling the mouthpiece in March, using the CCM brand with the tag line "powered by Sisu." They are made by Akervall's outside contractors.
Filiatrault-Giroux declined to provide sales numbers but said "our market share has increased significantly since then."
"Sisu" is the brand name Akervall uses for its sports mouthguards. According to Sassa Akervall, "sisu" is a popular word in her and Jan's native country of Sweden. It has no direct English translation but embodies "determination, strength and resilience."
Akervall directly sells online or though Amazon.com three mouthguards under that brand — a standard mouthguard at $24.99, a higher-impact guard at $34.99 and a kids guard at $19.99. It also sells a guard case at $8.99 and the Sova Night Guard for teeth grinders for $44.99.
It competes with makers of traditional ethylene-vinyl acetate guards, such as Minnetonka, Minn.-based Shock Doctor Inc., the largest U.S. manufacturer of mouthguards
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