Need a Hug? TechWatch editor Emily McDaid got to grips with a new wearable heat pack that offers a natural alternative to pain medication.
Experienced product designer Fiona Bennington has always been interested in the power of design to improve lives. Her company, Hug, produces wearable heat packs that help relieve common ailments such as back pain, menstrual pain or even conditions such as endometriosis.
“Hug is totally discreet. You can wear Hug even when you’re in the office,” said Bennington.
Her experience in plastics and packaging development was invaluable when creating Hug. Bennington previously worked for companies such as Lisburn-based Leckey, which manufactures products to enhance the lives of children with physical disabilities.
‘One of the most challenging aspects of the design was safety’
– FIONA BENNINGTON
Hug is now selling directly via its own site or on Amazon for £19.99. Since 2015, Hug’s retail deals include Cara Pharmacy in the Republic of Ireland and Clear Pharmacy in Northern Ireland and the wider UK.
The market leader in the heat-pack industry is hot water bottles, but they cannot be worn – and they aren’t discreet. Heat has been proven in some studies to be more effective at pain control than medicinal painkillers. “As a result of this research and feedback, I wanted Hug to be compact and wearable,” Bennington said.
Hug has straps to create an adjustable fit, and it can be heated to a desirable temperature in the microwave, over and over again. It can also be cooled in a freezer for headache or swelling relief.
“One of the most challenging aspects of the design was safety,” Bennington said. “I wanted to design a safer product than any other that you can find. Many of the competitors have reported incidents of burns, so I wanted to be particularly careful with Hug.”
As is often the case with product design, the biggest hurdle turned into a catapult for the most creative solutions. Bennington refused to use a conventional liquid interior because, if the product burst, it could burn the skin.“Gel beads, however, would roll off the skin,” she said.
Secondly, Hug required a temperature indicator, so that it could be worn directly against the skin and not exceed 45 or 50 degrees centigrade.
Bennington added: “Thirdly, we needed to avoid the use of PVC plastic on the rear of the product because it’s not comfortable against the skin. So I developed a method of ultrasonically welding dual materials. This allowed me to include a clear plastic front, so people can see the gel beads, introducing softness and breathability on the back of the product with a velvet waterproof fabric.”
Hug has secured a manufacturing deal in China, owing to Fiona’s experience and contacts in the far east. “Before Hug, I’d been back and forth to meet with Chinese manufacturers throughout my career,” she said. “So I already understood how to do business in China, which was hugely helpful. I partnered with a manufacturer that has medical device directive certificates and good QC procedures.”
Bennington has also been studying Mandarin for the past four years, aiding in communication with her suppliers and helping to build a rapport. Her depth of experience has clearly paid off – she indicates that the “product paid for itself within around six months of sales, all the tooling and everything”.
Our glamorous & very pink assistants delivering @hugitbetter samples to the stage! And a demo from inventor Fiona #INVENT2017 pic.twitter.com/3UuDtQF7bD
— Connect (@CIConnect) May 18, 2017
“I wished I’d set up my own selling operation on my website sooner. Selling yourself, you don’t have to pay substantial fees through Amazon,” she said.
“Creating the product was easy, because that’s what I do. The selling part is a lot harder. I hope to soon take on someone to help with marketing, and someone who can help get our product into more stores.
Bennington continued: “Initially, we’re aligning our product to aid with specific conditions. Hug was developed and primarily aimed at women who suffer from period pain – 67pc of the female population. Hug is also appreciated by the 10pc of women of reproductive age in the UK who suffer from endometriosis – around 1.6m women. Our third-most promising market is back pain.”
This makes sense, because one in eight unemployed people report back pain as the reason they aren’t working. In the UK, 2.5m people have back pain every day of the year.
Hug is now a finalist in the Invent competition in the Engineering category. We wish Bennington good luck.
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch
The annual Invent competition is run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, and aims to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2017 will take place on Thursday 5 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund and the chance to attend a Northern Ireland tech mission to California.