Small company, big change
How Covid forced a technology company to pivot and leap
Published in July, 2020
Akervall Technologies was sitting pretty. Founded in 2009, the Saline company was named the Best Small Business of the Year in 2019 by Michigan Celebrates Small Businesses, and was growing quickly. Founder Jan Akervall, a head and neck physician, had invented a stronger, more flexible, and less bulky sports mouthguard made of thermoplastic material. The first major mouthguard innovation in 75 years, his SISU Mouthguard was poised to become the new industry standard.
Then Covid-19 cancelled spring athletic seasons worldwide. "Eighty to 90 percent of our work is in sports," says Sassa Akervall, Jan's wife and the company's CEO and co-owner. "We had to let everyone go except a few halftime people."
There were a handful of dark days, but flexibility and innovation are the name of the game in the tech industry and the Akervalls had a sudden flash of inspiration: They could pivot from mouthguards to face shields. Luckily their supplier had access to the materials they would need to make the switch. After a string of late nights in the workshop, they had their prototype.
"We started hiring back in the beginning of April and had two shifts running seven days a week," says Sassa. "At the peak we were 135 people." Demand slacked as other companies entered the space, but innovation has again pulled the company out in front. Akervall also manufactures the SOVA Nightguard, which it sells to the dental industry. This opened the way to marketing face shields to dentists. When some complained that they weren't compatible with protective eyewear, the company responded with the SISU Extend, an adjustable shield that can be pulled forward to accommodate eyewear. They also launched a line of children's face shields that come in an assortment of bright colors, designs, and decals.
Disruptive technologies and rapid adaptations are hallmarks of successful growth companies, and the Swedish-born Akervalls are wired to think out of the box. "Our company has always done things differently and we pride
ourselves on this," says Sassa. "Even if consumers don't want face shields post-Covid, we have products now that we think will always be useful for dentists." The company anticipates ramping up production of the SISU mouthguard when athletics teams return to practice.
Working in an industry at the intersection of technology and sports, Sassa is often the only woman in the room. Now that her company has had the chance to prove itself, she says, that "is less of an issue as time goes on." And she says she's enjoyed tremendous support from fellow members of the Women Presidents' Organization. "It's great when you have women in your network," she says.
She's also is grateful for her mainly female team, including marketing director Lisa Edwards, who has been with the company since 2014. "If you don't have the right people around you, you are not going anywhere," she says.
[Originally published in July, 2020.]
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