First Commercial Product
Named one of Michigan 50 Companies to Watch
Consistent Annual Growth Rate
Originally from Sweden, Sassa Akervall came to the United States in 2000 with her husband, Dr. Jan Akervall, MD, Ph.D., who was doing a two-year Fellowship in Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery at the University of Michigan(U-M). A graduate of the Lund Medical School in Sweden, Dr. Akervall became an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Specialist and obtained his Ph.D. in Oncology and Cancer Biology in 1998 from the Lund University. In 2004, the couple decided to make Michigan home when Dr. Akervall became Medical Director of the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Center program at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak(MI).
A component of Dr. Akervall’s practice was performing transoral surgeries where he used a mouthguard to prevent dental injuries during the procedure. The traditional mouthguards were bulky and made of hard, non-flexible material. Using disruptive technology, he invented a prototype mouthguard made from a medical grade thermopolymer that provided greater protection for the patient’s teeth.
Soon the Akervall’s discovered another use for the prototype mouthguard. As their young daughter began playing field hockey, they outfitted her with the traditional sports mouthguard which she found to be uncomfortable and bulky. They had her try the prototype and she loved it.
“I’m an accidental entrepreneur, my background is in media and advertising,” said Sassa Akervall, Chief Executive Officer for Akervall Technologies. “Our business started from the need to make our daughter more comfortable and then escalated from there.”
To further test their product, Sassa hosted a pizza party for her daughter’s team. She asked each player to pick a color, test it out, and provide them with feedback. The positive feedback was overwhelming. Their next “test group”came unexpectedly when they set up a booth at a roller derby event. Within 30 minutes, they had a line out the door for their product.
With concept in hand, Akervall Technologies, Inc. (ATI) launched in 2007. To develop the commercial product, Dr. Akervall worked with co-founder, Johannes Schwank Ph.D. Johannes is the James and Judith Street Professor of Chemical Engineering at U-M. Their initial product –SISU Mouthguard –was designed for the sports industry.
When their first commercial product hit the market in 2009, Sassa found herself sitting at the family’s kitchen table stuffing envelopes with mouthguards at 2 a.m. Soon she hired a friend to lend a helping hand and within a year they moved to a room in the basement and hired four more employees. In 2014, they purchased a 16,000 square foot building in Saline (MI) and moved out of the basement.
Having never been an entrepreneur, her knowledge of managing the daily operations of a business were minimal. She reached out to a number of organizations that support entrepreneurs, including the Greater Washtenaw Region of the SBDC where she was paired with a business consultant who had an extensive background in retail.
“As a first-time entrepreneur, it’s not always clear who to call or where to go for help,” shared Sassa. “Ron Stevens was terrific at showing me the value of not only the SBDC services but also other agencies that support entrepreneurs.”
For more than a decade, Sassa has worked with the SBDC network. From her SBDC regional team at the Greater Washtenaw office to the Tech and Export Teams, she has received guidance on SEO strategies, product development, market entry, pricing, and growth development. She has also been assisted by the SBDC in grant development and investor pitch presentations.
Since those late nights at the kitchen table, the ATI team has grown to more than 20 employees and expanded their product line to include: SISU®Sports Mouthguards, SOVA®Nighttime grind protection™, and IntuGuard™ – the Intubation Mouthguard™ for surgical professionals. Their growth has been fueled by the unmatched quality and functionality of their mouthguards, being mindful of controlling expenses, having a great team at ATI, and the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, microloan from Ann Arbor Spark, participation in Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Economic Gardening program, and term loans from Invest Michigan.
ATI has also received many accolades, including being honored as the 2019 Best Small Business for the Michigan SBDC Network, 2017 Regional Winners of the Ernest & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and for three-consecutive years have been listed on the Inc. 5000 List and named Patient Products Category Winner by the Dental Advisor. Manufactured in the United States, ATI’s mouthguards have revolutionized the mouthguard industry and set new standards for innovation. Their mission is to become the Global Golden Standard for mouthguards. To learn more about ATI products, visit their website.
Published: August 7, 2019