Akervall is CEO of Saline-based Akervall Technologies, manufacturer of surgical and sports mouth guards, and Capelli had just made a startling suggestion. It was March 2020, and like all “nonessential” businesses in the state, the company had just closed its doors and furloughed all but two of its twenty employees.
Then, at four o’clock one morning, Capelli emailed to suggest “Let’s make face shields.”
To her incredulous boss, she explained, “We could utilize all our vendors—the plastic vendor for blister packs, and 90 percent of face shields are made from plastic.”
So, Akervall recalls, they enlisted their “very resourceful plant production manager,” Paul Wisniewski and “set to work rearranging our facility.” They immediately rehired the furloughed employees and by May had added 125 temps. Everyone worked around the clock filling orders from the State of Michigan, local hospitals, and other “hero facilities” (in Akervall’s words) around the country.
For six months, they produced and shipped millions of face shields. “We were working so fast that we never took the time for an accurate tally,” Akervall says.
That frenetic activity stopped when cheaper personal protective equipment from overseas began flooding the market. But “by that time, sports teams and programs were getting back on their feet and we converted back to making mouth guards,” she says. And thanks to the company’s quick pivot, it posted record sales in 2020.
Akervall calls herself “an accidental entrepreneur.” A native of Sweden with a BA in communications from Lund University, her previous careers included stints as a copywriter, network television host, producer, and children’s author. But a chance shopping trip changed her professional life.
The story begins in 2009, when the Akervalls’ daughter, Miriam, was playing hockey at Clague Middle School and needed a mouth guard. Just before the season began, she ran to the store to buy a generic model, which she showed her father that night.
Jan Akervall is an otolaryngologist who had been designing mouth guards for his surgical patients at St. Joe’s Hospital. After studying his daughter’s purchase, he showed her a mouth guard he had designed. “Try this,” he suggested.
“Jan has always been an out-of-the-box thinker,” explains Sassa, his wife of thirty-one years. “He’s very analytical and intuitive, but he also recognizes opportunities … He has been a pioneer in designing and using surgical mouth guards.”
Made from a plastic polymer, the guard he offered his daughter could be heated and molded to her teeth, and remolded many times if needed. Their daughter loved it—and so did her field hockey teammates.
A business idea was hatched. “We knew we could tailor Jan’s mouth guards to sports as well as other medical needs,” Sassa says.
At first, “the business consisted of me, sitting at the kitchen table, working,” she says. But as orders began trickling, then pouring, into the kitchen, the couple formed a partnership with U-M chemical engineering prof Johannes Schwank.
“He is a colleague and a good, good friend,” Sassa says. “He understands the material and chemical compositions of the products and has been very crucial in coming up with the best formulations for our products.”
By 2013, six employees were working full-time in the Akervall basement in Superior Township. That was when the partners agreed it was time to relocate to an industrial park in Saline.
In addition to the Sisu Mouthguard for sports (“sisu” is Finnish for “guts”), the company makes the Sova (Swedish for “sleep”) Night Guard (“to relieve the pain and discomfort of teeth grinding at night”), and the Intugard surgical guard (to “help protect patients from dental injuries even during the most difficult endotracheal intubation”). Additional products are in development stages, including a mouth guard for football players—which has the added challenge of developing a connector to the helmet.
For three consecutive years, Inc. magazine listed Akervall Technologies as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing privately owned companies in the U.S. Then Covid reared its ugly head.
Fortunately, “we are a small company, very nimble and flexible,” Sassa says. “We can turn on a dime.” They did so to make face masks, and a second time six months later, when imported personal protective equipment “pulled the rug out from under us.” They resumed production of the Sisu and introduced the Sova—during the pandemic, more and more people had taken to grinding their teeth. “Yet it was sad to stop manufacturing the PPE,” she says. “We’d hoped we had a new product line, but we just couldn’t match the price of overseas products.
“I was so, so proud to do this,” Sassa says. “Coming from a different country, Jan and I try to give back to our adopted country. We created decent jobs at a time of high unemployment to produce something hospitals and people really needed.”
Now, she says, they’re back “on a mission to become the global golden standard in mouth guards.” Their son, Isak, recently came on board as the “financial analysis person,” and this year they remodeled the Saline facility to make production more efficient.
Lacrosse, field hockey, and water polo were the first sports teams to order in bulk. “As a small business, we’ve found it more efficient to partner with teams’ governing bodies,” Sassa says. “We chose not to go fast into the pro market. We like to be frugal. Our business plan is working very well as we find ways to sell on the grassroots level”—starting with their daughter’s teammates.