Our Start-up of the Week is Theya Healthcare, an award-winning company that has developed supportive underwear for breast cancer surgery patients using bamboo materials.
“Making women feel better faster post-surgery, both physically and psychologically.” That’s how Ciara Donlon, founder of Theya Healthcare, sums up the company’s mission.
A Dublin manufacturer of medical garments, NovaUCD-based Theya Healthcare recently raised €665,000 in a funding round from private angel investors and Enterprise Ireland.
‘I saw so many unhappy, uncomfortable women being forced to wear implements of torture and I thought, there has to be a better way’
– CIARA DONLON
It also signed a deal with a US purchasing co-op called Greenhealth Exchange, which specifies, screens, and sources high-quality and ethically sourced products for its members. The deal will see Theya Healthcare become a preferred supplier to 11 large US healthcare systems, including the Mayo Clinic, Dignity Health and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical.
Theya Healthcare was granted its EU patent for its unique bamboo material mix in late 2018.
In 2017 Donlon won the Laureate for Europe Award in the Cartier Women’s Initiative and was shortlisted for both the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (Emerging category) and the Matheson WMB Female Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Our range of patented bamboo post-operative garments were designed specifically for breast cancer patients,” Donlon said.
“However, we have discovered that the unique design and material mix makes them highly applicable in a number of other market segments including aesthetic surgery, radiotherapy treatment, and for maternity and nursing.
“This market worldwide is worth €5bn.”
Donlon studied at DIT Mountjoy Square. She has a BSc in management from Trinity College Dublin and an advanced diploma in marketing techniques from DIT.
“I was the first person in Ireland to do their thesis on how the internet would change marketing communications, back in 1999 when no one wanted to spend money in online. I went straight to work in online marketing in various roles where I progressed my career to finishing as head of the online channel for Vodafone, where I ran a team of 25 looking after sales and care. I left in 2009 determined to steer my own course and that led to me opening up a lingerie shop called Cupcakes Lingerie in my home village of Ranelagh.
“This was 2010. I taught myself the industry and how to fit a bra properly, which is a very important skill to have! That shop led me to Theya Healthcare. I saw so many unhappy, uncomfortable women being forced to wear implements of torture and I thought, there has to be a better way.”
Donlon did her research, asked patients what they wanted from their post-op lingerie and designed it.
When she started her entrepreneurial journey Donlon chose bamboo as her fabric. “I knew I would have to convince the medical profession to take it seriously – that bamboo does possess natural healing qualities. Even though there are many bamboo products in the market making claims about its natural antibacterial properties, I could not find any hard scientific proof.
“I had chosen bamboo as a better option than cotton and because it feels like cashmere against the skin, is naturally antibacterial, highly absorbent, hypoallergenic, thermally regulating and sustainable. A miracle material!”
Donlon went to a cancer biologist in UCD, Dr Amanda McCann, and showed her the range. “She loved the products and helped me to find Claire Kelly, an oncology nurse who did her research master’s with us in UCD. She looked at the physical and psychological effects of what you wear post-operatively for the first four weeks and we compared it to best in class. This study was carried out in Dublin’s top four teaching hospitals.”
The study of Theya Healthcare’s designs and materials showed results that included an 8.5pc improvement in body image, a 20pc improvement in health status and a reduction in levels of pain and irritation.
Ultimately, Donlon wants to see Theya Healthcare become a medical garment manufacturer that helps people to deal with the symptoms of many ailments through the use of natural fibres.
She said that the company’s US plans have accelerated faster than expected and it has raised €1.8m since it started in 2014, adding that she has the right team, board and investors.
But she has also had to learn tough lessons along the way.
The lessons of an entrepreneur
“Don’t count on investment A or B – have C and D lined up in the back pocket. I’ve been let down twice at the last minute and that is very difficult to deal with, especially when you have wages to pay.
“I totally underestimated the amount of money that I would spend on legal fees and I would advise any start-up to make sure you have a lawyer as an adviser or on your board.
“Don’t hire your friends even if you are broke. It is great to get the help, but ultimately it completely changes your relationship and not for the better.”
Donlon believes the start-up scene in Ireland is flying but not perfect. “I would still like to see more female-owned companies coming up through the pipeline. We have a 65:35 male to female split now in Ireland. I really believe that both sexes offer a unique view of an issue or an opportunity, and that females have a lot more to contribute to the entrepreneurship scene in general.”
Her advice to fellow founders? “If you feel it, then it will be. Simple as that. Your dreams and your desires can come through if you are tenacious enough. I am proof of that. A few times I was close to throwing in the towel, but I believe in what Theya was created to achieve and that kept me focused through the tough times and, look, I’ve come out the other side.”
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