In most industries, progress is an evolutionary process. Leaders will argue relentlessly about modest changes to products, as they make small improvements over a long time. But once in awhile, momentous shifts take place. Mattresses are a ubiquitous commodity, and have remained largely unchanged for decades. But a Japanese startup, Airweave, might be on the verge of revolutionizing this pivotal bedroom furniture.
In the coming days, 3,000 athletes in Rio will be resting on Airweave portable top mattresses, dreaming of Olympic success. Could an Olympic medal be won in bed? The question would draw ire from many coaches, but the numbers suggest the sleeping conditions of athletes can make a difference. At the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia in 2014, 33% of the medals were won by teams which had endorsed the Airweave product. The company, headed by Motokuni Takaoka, a Stanford-trained engineer and entrepreneur, has proved that technology has now overtaken the bedroom.
Sleep may not be the most headline-grabbing business, but remains humans’ favorite pastime. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 daily hours in bed for young adults (17-25) and 14 hours for toddlers. This activity consumes over 30% of human life. The negative consequences of poor rest are numerous: memory shortage, muscular fatigue, learning disability, anxiety, and low sex drive count among the most researched ones. Conversely good to great sleep increases performance, sociability and general health.
For decades, traditional mattress manufacturers have slept on their laurels. Mattress come in four main sizes and are generally low rebound. They are mostly composed of either innerspring, foam, latex, air, and sometimes water. Replacement and first time purchases account for 35 million units in the United States alone, and each unit lasts on average eight to ten years. It generates a big business, over $25 billion globally according to Sleep Retailer, with markup exceeding 40 to 50%. Thus the growing number of mattress stores in America: 8,000 in 2011, 9,100 today. The big players (Mattress Firm, Sleepy’s) are mattress chains, and represent 50% of the market.
Airweave has disrupted the bedding experience thanks to a drastic patented innovation, the high rebound top mattress. Studies show that people undergo a deep sleep phase, during which the body temperature decreases, initially in the half period of sleep which carries the most restorative benefits. The Airweave mattress extends that duration, hence the positive rewards. The second breakthrough involves turnovers. Excessive turnovers reduce sleep’s restorative effects but Airweave’s material enables more natural turnovers. Last, and not least, it causes less strains and minimizes peak pressure points during sleep, absorbing better dispersion of body pressure.
A seminal 2013 study prepared by the Stanford Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology Laboratory, a department of the Stanford University School of Medicine, has confirmed their assumptions.
Dr. Nishino and Dr. Emmanuel Mignot oversaw analysis on the topic. First the mattress, made of fishing lines, the secret sauce, grants significant breathability and reduces the number of rollovers, says Dr. Nishino. But more importantly Stanford and The Kawasaki Sleep Clinic identified the main value underlying that technology. It is common knowledge that the really valuable portion of a night’s sleep does not last eight hours, but four hours divided into two major phases. The first one is commonly known as deep sleep. At that time, the core body temperature drops. “The sooner it drops the more restful the deep sleep phase,” explains Dr. Nishiro. “Airweave fosters an accelerate heat loss, reaching 0.5 degrees difference between Airweave mattress users and others,” he adds.
Alongside the well-known IMG Sport Academy, Stanford researchers have analyzed the performances of athletes sleeping on Airweave compared to others. The resulting athletic performance showed a significant difference between the two groups due to their better restorative sleep. Dr. Nishino confirms the research: “What was the most unexpected was that people aged 55 years old and above demonstrated similar patterns.”
CEO Motokuni Takaoka grasped that athletes and the sport ecosystem would more easily wake up, adopt and acknowledge his innovation. Since 2008, he has crisscrossed the world and logged hundreds of hours to meet with national teams and special trainers in high competition fields. Now, the product has been endorsed by U.S. O.C., America’s Olympic Committee, the PGA top Ten players (Bubba Watson), F.C Barcelona 2015 and Germany’s skaters. More recently, according to rumors, the company secured the nod from the huge Chinese Olympic delegation to the Rio 2016 games.
After harvesting the lowest hang fruit, Airweave has pursued and penetrated additional sectors. The next to fall were the airlines, which provide their first class passengers with the ultra-thin HR topper. Japan Airlines, ANA and the elite Asian companies are starting to standardize their planes with Airweave. At the same time, the company made substantive forays into the hospitality industry with four and five-star North American chains, including Ritz Carlton, Hyatt and a handful of other prestigious brands. Airweave did not rest there, providing ballet dancers in the Pris and London Opera House with the mattress. The next wave consists of reaching out to the general public and for so doing Airweave has opened its own store in New York City, in Soho.
Scaling a $100 million company comes with strains and challenges. Entering the competitive U.S. market after being a dominant force and brand in Japan requires a lot of resources, since the company has been built the “old fashioned way”, explains Takaoka.
Airweave will have to soon decide whether to answer the private equity firms at the door. The company anticipates that the competition will react and retailers such as Caspers could either morph into competitors or distributors.
This success story is no accident, by any means. The founder enrolled in many classes at the Stanford GSB business school classes during his two year graduate studies. There, he caught the entrepreneurial bug although he was cast to run the family manufacturing business back at home. Fulfilling his duty, he remained in contact with Silicon Valley and earned his stripes as an angel investor. In some cases he joined the board of some companies, which he faithfully attended on the side of John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins, among others. It was a “wonderful opportunity to learn from the best”, Takaoka later confessed. He collected lessons about startups, their pitfalls and their patterns over two decades prior to taking the plunge with his own.
What is next? As usual execution quality will define Airweave’s destiny. Over 100 million mattresses are sold in China alone, the company’s next entry point. And another 100 million in Europe and North America as well. But next week, the smallest among the billion dollar sponsors at the upcoming Olympic games in Rio will have to persuade the Olympians who have not yet switched to Airweave that they can’t afford to miss out. And if the ones who have relied on Airweave collect gold medals like in Sotchi, Motokuni Takaoka’s portable mattress could become the indispensable night companion.