When Tara and Todd Youngblood decided to tackle the problem of poor sleep, the co-founders and married couple started with the basics. What makes for good sleep? While a lot of factors come into play, they found a lower body temperature is critical--it helps you fall asleep faster, get higher quality sleep, and wake up less frequently throughout the night.
That insight led the entrepreneurs to launch Moorseville, North Carolina-based Sleepme in 2007. Sleepme's flagship product is a mattress topper that keeps your bed at the ideal temperature (about 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and also tracks your biometrics overnight so you can see just how much it's improving your sleep. The Youngbloods self-funded the company until 2017, when they took a $2 million seed round, and then in 2020, they raised $37 million from investment firm KKR. They say the company had a 47.9 percent compound annual revenue growth rate over the past four years. Sleepme products are available to consumers through the website BestBuy.com and will be in Best Buy stores this September.
A cooling mattress topper might sound like a simple idea, but Tara says it's the fruit of more than a dozen years of research and more than 30 patents. Inc. spoke to the co-founders, now both 49, to find out their best tips for bringing a highly technical product to market--and how to protect it with a potent patent strategy.
1. The best solution might be one that already exists.
Back in the mid-2000s, the Youngbloods spent years searching for the right cooling method for a mattress topper. They initially considered compressors, a decades-old cooling solution, but they can be loud and often need even louder fans to push air. They eventually found a solution in thermal electric Peltier chips, which are 40 millimeters across and were initially designed to help cool computers. Tara says that often entrepreneurs think innovation is only about inventing something new. "A lot of time, it is pairing things that are already in the market," she says. Tara took the chips, paired them with medical-grade silicone tubing and a patented water cooling and delivery system, and created their first cooling mattress topper.
2. Find the right expert to guide your strategy.
Tara's initial experience working with patent attorneys was frustrating. They didn't give good advice on what was patentable or do the work and research to find out. "A lot of patent attorneys are kind of like your speeding ticket attorney--they'll show up in court, and they'll do that. But if you're on trial for something, you're probably not going to use those attorneys," says Tara, whose exasperation with the process even led her to consider becoming a patent attorney herself.
Eventually, on a customer's recommendation, she found an attorney she could trust--she knew so because the conversations with this person were different. First, they talked about strategy, and not just what to patent and how, but in-depth on how the patent would be used, what the company aimed to achieve through this patent, and how it would create value for her company.
"I do think that it makes a huge difference in coming up with a portfolio strategy for patents. It's worth the extra money to not just file it online yourself, but to actually get advice when it comes to what you can and cannot do with your patents," Tara says.
3. Make sure your claims are tight.
While an expert is key, Tara is quick to add that entrepreneurs themselves need to take an active role in the process, particularly in writing the patent application claims--or the subject matter protected by the patent. The claims warn others of what they must not do if they are to avoid infringement on your patent. The more claims you write and the more specific the claims are, the more robust your patent will be. She adds that you want to include everything, even the possibilities you explored that didn't work. This will ensure your product can't be recreated with just one or two small changes and will secure future iterations.
4. Keep your patent strong by filing continuations.
It might be tempting to think of patents as the kind of thing you file once and then forget. Not so, Tara says. Patents work best when you keep building off of them. One way Sleepme has been effective is by filing continuations from the original 2008 patent. A continuation is a patent application filed by an applicant who wants to build off a product's original design and pursue additional claims disclosed in the original application. Basically, it is an additional patent application that expands upon the original with new claims.
Protecting the space your invention has created is important, particularly in the emerging technology field, Tara says. "You want to make sure you leave room in the 20 years of the life of that patent for the other technologies that may come online that could be disruptive to that pathway. And really, the way to protect that is to continue to expand. And so if you look at our patents, they really almost look like trees, where there's maybe one or two that start and those are the roots and from those roots will expand out from there."
One example of this is Sleepme's heat sink, a component of the overall cooling system that regulates temperature by transferring heat away from the thermal electric Peltier chips. This sink has its own patent, and as does Sleepme's process for measuring, storing, and using the sleep data the company collects.
To date, Tara estimates the company has spent about $500,000 on its patent strategy and says the company's double-digit revenue growth year over year proves the cost has been worth it.
"You should have a plan of how you're going to use [the patent], how you're going to commercialize it, how you're going to get it to the next step," she says. "Otherwise, it's not a total waste, but it's pretty close to that."