Somnox founder Julian Jagtenberg. Photographer: Clément Heinen, 2018.

Somnox, a startup company established in 2005, started out with Jagtenberg’s idea of creating an invention which would help his mother with her sleeping issues. Consequently, the Sleep Robot was born: a bean-like pillow which simulates a respiratory rate, which helps people sleep better at night. Through decreasing the heart rate and lowering the blood pressure, the robot activates the ‘sleeping mode’, reducing levels of stress, anxiety and insomnia. Additionally, the robot can also be personalised through the complementary app.

It is nice to see how a personal invention became something available for a wider audience. Who is exactly the audience of your product?

Our audience includes those who do no’t sleep well and have tried other remedies to solve this problem. It is a fact that one in three Dutch people experience the effects of sleep deprivation. This also includes those who do not go to bed on time and then wake up at six in the morning. However, we target those who actually want to work on their sleeping problems and suffer from stress and anxiety. Right now, what we observe is that especially during the corona crisis, it has become more apparent. To be more specific, our target audience primarily includes people between the ages of 35 and 60, with 70% of our customers being female. If you look at the statistics regarding sleeping problems, then we can conclude that women are more prone to sleeping problems, especially around the menopause. In that period, the hormones decrease a woman’s quality of sleep.

How do you differentiate from other remedying methods? 

I do not think that we are ‘the golden solution’ to sleeping problems and that we take away all the issues related to it. If you look at the way we position ourselves, we start off with what people first do when treating their sleeping problems. In general, you first start with innocent sleeping pills from the drugstore. However, this only works on the short-term, because it is just a substitute for a substance which your body naturally produces. Sleeping pills are purely a solution if nothing else is possible to remedy the problem or when it is prescribed by a professional for temporary usage. It also has side effects and it can be addicting, which is where we already differentiate ourselves. The Sleep Robot does not use any chemicals, it is not addictive nor does it have any side effects. In case of therapy, you would have to talk with a psychologist and change your entire behaviour, which is for most people too extreme. That is why people prefer swallowing pills, because you just buy it and it works. Similarly, our product offers the same proposition: you just purchase it, but you do not have to go to a clinic. Another solution are sleep trackers, such as an Apple Watch, which measure sleep. Nevertheless, just measuring your sleeping patterns does not help. In fact, in the long run, it will make you more anxious, as it just shows you results. Thus, we position ourselves as something which actually aids people to sleep better.

How did you, as a company, cope with the COVID-19 situation?

It was very challenging, that is for sure. Despite the fact that the problems of insomnia and mental well-being are now more relevant than ever, there is at the same time the issue with the market.  We are a company with a profit motive and we know that consumers have become more careful when making purchasing decisions. Our product costs 600 euros, which is a large sum of money which not everyone is willing to pay for right now, despite the product’s benefits. Thus, we experienced a loss of turnover and it forced us as a company to look better at our costs. We really had to make some adjustments there, as well as in the areas of our projects, vacancies and other business matters. So, it was very challenging. All of a sudden, you had to work remotely and the sales are decreasing, while your costs are increasing. It is as if you are suddenly on a ship which is going right through a storm and if you do not take any action, the boat will sink. Right now, we have made decisions, which were not always nice, but consequently, the ship is able to sail through the storm. We just had to throw away some of our supplies into the sea.

In May, you managed to acquire funding from Health Investment Partners. How did this investment influence your corona-related decisions?

Yes, that was some very good news we received back then. I am very happy and proud that we managed to acquire such an investment, because it sure was not a small one. Though, even then, an investment does not guarantee success.

The market is ruthless, thus, we made a plan with the investor regarding how to overcome this crisis. What is more important, though, is that you go back to the drawing board and ask yourself whether your current strategy is going to help you get through the corona crisis. Accordingly, like a chameleon, we had to adapt to the circumstances. Yes, the current situation is bothersome, but it is just the way it is. Some of the largest companies are established in crises and I think that if you are a good entrepreneur, you are able to bear such difficult adjustments. Obviously, this does depend on which industry you are in. What surprises me right now, though, is that many companies point to the government and say something along the lines of: “We need money from the government to save ourselves.” There is a legit point in that, but simultaneously, I feel like that as a company, you are responsible for your own success. Either way, you always need to prepare yourself for worst-case scenarios. 

As you had to make some decisions regarding your projects, how does Somnox remain being innovative?

That was definitely a hard one to think about, because if you know that you have to save money, then it is easy to say that you are just going to discard innovation projects, because you might not earn any money with it and it is not very secure. We see that a lot of enterprises go back to the core of what they are selling, in order to let their ship sail. Somnox is a startup company, thus, per definition, you are investing in the future and our vision and culture is based on innovation. Thus, we decided to indeed discard or postpone the projects. However, as innovation is part of our vision, we still protected the core of our newest product project, as discussed with our investor. It all comes down to being crystal clear about what you stand for as a company and based on that, you decide what applies to that and what does not.

Are there any plans for further international expansion?

Yeah, we are planning to remain developing in the current countries we have expanded to. As of now, we are active in the USA, the UK, The Netherlands and Japan. However, we are not going to set up large, expensive experiments anymore, so we most likely have to stick to what does work. As I said before, in the field of sleeping and mental well-being, the issues only become bigger. For example, Somnox might even prosper more, because the demand for our product might increase in the United States. I know the news provides a very distorted picture, but if you just look at the things happening there, I would not be able to sleep at night if I were them. So, I think that we can do great international business, but it will be harder than before. Usually, I would travel once or twice a month to establish partnerships, but now I have to discuss these matters from a distance through a Skype call. This is extremely difficult, as there is a cultural difference between you and the potential partner and a loss of body language which you have to take note of. 

Is there anything you can tell us about your current plans, e.g. partnerships?

I can say that we are currently busy with such projects, which are in the light of our mission to help a hundred million people to sleep better in 2030. With that, we do not mean to sell a hundred million sleeping robots, but what we are aiming for is to educate people about remedying sleeping problems. Recently, we started creating content, such as blog posts on how to sleep better, free courses and we are planning to start our own YouTube channel. It is basically free education on insomnia. In addition, we are also working together with psychologists and therapists and attempting to ‘connect’ patients with our products. At some point, we hope that insurance companies will cover the costs of our products for consumers.

Is there anything else you would like to share with DSA and our readers?

A tip: go to bed on time. Especially for the entrepreneurs among us. I know that pulling an all-nighter is a very common thing, but I advise you not to do it. You will realise that once you get 8 hours sleep per night that it will be better for you and for your business as a whole. Another thing I want to tell to current entrepreneurs is that if you, as a startup, manage to survive the corona crisis, then you are the final boss. The corona crisis is just an audition for the years to come. 

About Julian:

Julian Jagtenberg, born in 1995 in Amersfoort, pursued his childhood dream of becoming an inventor through becoming an Industrial Design student at the Delft University of Technology, focusing on the field of robotics. During this time, he created a prototype of a sleeping robot with the intent to help his mother, which later became Somnox. Somnox aims at helping people with sleep problems and strives to aid a hundred million people with sleeping well in 2030.