Consulting breast cancer survivors led to the development of post-operative bras, says Trish Dromey
FOR Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards finalist, Ciara Donlon, it all began when she identified a niche in the market for post-operative bras for women who are recovering from breast cancer.
Five years on, she has a company with a staff of six, sales in both Ireland and in the UK, and plans to develop new markets in the US and Europe. This year, she has been named laureate for Europe in the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.
Ms Donlon had the idea for the business when she noticed, while running a lingerie shop, that women who had just had breast surgery had difficulty finding bras that were comfortable, supportive, and pretty.
With feasibility funding from Enterprise Ireland, she carried out market research with 80 breast cancer survivors in Ireland and the UK.
This was a gap in the market she could fill. Although the idea seemed simple, turning it into a reality was less so.
“There are no lingerie manufacturers in Ireland. I needed a lingerie designer — I approached colleges and universities and, although I wanted an Irish designer, I had to go to the UK to find one,” she said.
But once she had found a lingerie designer with 25 years’ experience and had secured €50,000 in Competitive Start Funding from Enterprise Ireland, Ms Donlon closed her lingerie shop and set up Theya Healthcare, taking the name from the Hindu goddess.
Her aim was to create a product that could be worn by women for the first year after surgery.
“The bras that were available were often bulky, uncomfortable, and made with synthetic materials — we wanted to do it differently,” she said.
Setting out to create a comfortable and supportive garment, she developed a unique bamboo fabric mix.
“The material is resistant to bacteria and helps promote natural healing,” she said.
In 2014, Ms Donlon found a manufacturer in China and raised €400,000 in private investment, as well as €250,000 from Enterprise Ireland, which identified the company as a high-potential start up.
Launching in February, 2015, Ms Donlon took her product range and travelled Ireland, knocking on doors.
“Our first customer was Arnotts — we had sales to specialised mastectomy shops, cancer hospitals, and into pharmacies. By the end of the year, we were selling in 27 stores,” she said.
In 2016, she moved into the UK market and established a sales office there. In June, the company began selling online with the House of Fraser and, by the end of the year, had become an NHS approved supplier.
“Once we were selling into UK hospitals, sales began to grow more rapidly — this year, sales in May were up 77% on January,’’ said Ms Donlon.
Estimating that 60% of sales are now going to the UK, she says the company has begun selling through a distributor in Portugal and Canada and also has some sales in France. The goal is to grow turnover to €1m this year.
Theya Healthcare have commissioned independent fabric testing of the bamboo mix. This was done at UCD.
“This gives us scientific proof that the bamboo mix is highly resistant to bacteria,’’ said Ms Donlon, who has applied for patent on her product range, based on this anti-bacterial bamboo-mix fabric.
Noting that approximately 70% of sales are to hospitals, she says that having her products recognised as a class one medical device by the Health Product Regulatory Authority was a significant step.
For the future, the company sees opportunities to develop sales beyond post-operative breast cancer patients.
“We can also sell to women who have had cosmetic surgery, other types of surgery, and to women who are undergoing radiotherapy,” she said.
Ms Donlon says that being named as laureate for Europe in the Cartier Women’s Initiatives Awards, and the accompanying, $100,000 prize money, have been a huge boost for the company and will help it develop sales internationally.
Similarly, she says that being named as a finalist in the emerging category in this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition is helping to raise the company profile.
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