Julian Jagtenberg on building a company on the intersection of robotics and sleep
Starting a business in a largely new market cannot possibly be an easy task. And if you ask Julian Jagtenberg, founder and CEO of Somnox, he would tell you that indeed, it isn’t. An engineer by education and an entrepreneur by calling, Julian has been in the driver’s seat of his company for over five years now.
What started out as an idea among him and fellow university colleagues in the Robotics department at TU Delft has now turned into a scale-up committed to minimizing the negative impact of sleep deprivation and insomnia.
“In the Netherlands, 1 out of 4 people suffers from sleep deprivation. The effects of sleep deprivation are quite devastating – it starts with the fact that it has a major effect on your health and has a direct impact on your immune system.”
Not to mention that sleeping less makes people more prone to certain diseases, he adds. “So, you better sleep well.”
The winding road of running an innovative tech business
The idea for Somnox was born out of a personal story. Julian’s mother was suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation – as well as the lack of solutions available – so together with his colleagues, he took on the challenge to develop one.
A robotics-based solution, in particular. The main question was how to combine two obviously different worlds, those of robotics and sleep. “To find out how to bring a robotic entity to the bedroom, we started out with a lot of literature research on what natural interventions there are with regard to sleep improvement.” Breathing came up as a key topic.
Research, development and prototypes
“We found this paper that said that when you hold on to a baby, you have this sensation of the heartbeat and the breathing. That’s when a mirroring effect takes place, so you take over the breathing rhythm and the calming sensation of the baby.”
With this finding in place, the team started making a lot of prototypes until they got to something that worked – for Julian’s mother as well as others later on. The key to making the combination of robotics and sleep work for them, and for the market, was turning their solution into something really appealing and cozy.
“In order to achieve that, we needed to make a rigid robotic into a soft robotic – and for that, we needed soft materials.” Early on in their development, Julian and his team got in touch with Auping, a circular mattress and bed manufacturer in the Netherlands, and that was the beginning of a long-term partnership.
“One day, we went to their furniture store and asked for some residue materials that were left over. We used those, we were very successful, and we showed them the result. They were very interested and from that point on, Auping took over the whole production process.”
With one key milestone achieved, Somnox was ready to move on to get its product on the market. While they started selling via distributors, thinking those would bring easier access to their customers, they eventually found out that all the distributor does is, well, distribute.
What’s your story?
They would not do any storytelling on their behalf – and to be successful, a company needs a strong story behind it. Lesson learned, Julian thought and took matters into his hands again. He and his team started looking into other ways to tell their story and sell sleep robots at the same time. Perhaps accelerated by the pandemic and the decrease in sales overall, they went fully online and turned to Amazon and other e-commerce platforms.
“That’s when we found out that this is working way better for us. We have end-to-end control, we know who the customer is, we have all the data, and we can help them from A-Z because we are doing the fulfilment and customer service ourselves. I think this is the best thing you can do to have everything in your control.”
The power of a great team
Having things in control is surely a great feeling to have as an entrepreneur, but for Somnox that has also meant a lot of hard work and pushing through.
And a dedicated team has been the company’s strongest suit. Building the best team possible has been a priority for Somnox from the get-go, which is why they have established “a very strict recruiting process”, as Julian puts it.
“We hire based on your track record and what you can do, not on your diploma. Most importantly, it is about fitting into the team’s values – you need to have the drive and the competitive edge, and to want to be a part of our mission.” What’s perhaps even more notable is that all team members have yet another thing in common.
They have either their own experience or they have a relative, friend or loved one who is experiencing insomnia or has a mental health issue. “This is a very powerful value that we share because then you know why you’re doing this,” Julian says.
The money problems
All of this is what has kept the team together through the good times and the bad. Until they raised a Series A round last year, they had relied mostly on grants, subsidies, and competition prizes to drive the company further, as well as a crowdfunding campaign that they ran in 2019. While the Kickstarter campaign was a great tool for the team to validate their idea, it came with a few drawbacks, too. “We made a big miscalculation because the investments required were higher than the goal on Kickstarter and we had a lot of product delays because of that,” Julian recalls.
They had promised customers that they would get the robot within six months of buying it, however, six months turned into two years leaving their early backers rather frustrated.
Yet, Julian had another decision to make along the way. How does he tell his team members that things are not going well? Because transparency is valued highly within Somnox, he went ahead and talked about things as they were.
“I had to tell them […even though] I still had no solution to the problem. But by being open about this, everyone went all in to make it happen. So, we managed to overcome the situation through blood, sweat, and tears.
”It only goes to show that good team dynamics are crucial for the growth of any scale-up. Going forward, Somnox will be looking to expand internationally, establishing a local presence in both the UK and the US.
It is the next step in making their team even stronger.
Listen to the Up!Rotterdam podcast with Julian below, or check all the episodes of the Up!Rotterdam podcast here.