Upset by the distress their mums experienced when battling cancer, the founders of INGA Wellbeing have created a new clothing range for in and outpatients.
Business Advice talked to co-founder Claire Robinson about a business journey which takes in replacing traditional immodest hospital gowns, family struggle, European collaboration and a new approach to patient care.
Who are you and what is your business?
I am Claire Robinson and I founded INGA Wellbeing alongside Nikla Lancksweert and Fiona Mc Greal in 2014. We have created a range of clothes for female and male patients to wear in hospital, hospice or at home.
The clothes range from a nightdress to tops and trousers. They are comfortable and attractive to wear, and add to both the physical and mental health of patients during treatment.
They have also been designed in collaboration with nurses, so they do not interfere with necessary examinations or procedures such as putting in IVs. You can buy them online or at stockists which include charities such as Breast Cancer Haven.
How did you get the idea?
The business is named after Nikla’s mother Inga who suffered from cancer. I also spent three years nursing my mum who had breast cancer. With both our mums we saw them go through a long period of palliative care. I noticed with my Mum that she suffered a loss of identity when she was going through that period.
How she saw herself and how she thought others saw her affected her well-being and the hospital gown that she was wearing day in and day out added to that feeling. She didn’t want to move around the ward or see visitors. I was upset that this proud woman was feeling embarrassed and diminished.
Nikla and I both felt something had to be done to produce patient clothing which fused fashion with functionality. We wanted to give patients their independence back. This would improve their mental health by feeling more confident and seeing more visitors but also improve their physical wellbeing as they could now not feel worried about walking around hospital wards or going outside into the gardens.
How did you develop the idea?
We had no fashion experience, so we brought on board Fiona Mc Greal who is a very talented designer. It took three years from sitting down together at a kitchen table to discuss the idea, through research and design to launch. We started trading a year ago.
During the research period we worked closely with hospitals, nurses and patient groups about what they wanted and needed from the clothes. From the nurses side it was important that they could get easy access to the patient to put in interventions such as IVs, monitors or catheters so our designs incorporated easy to reach poppers.
Nikla and I are English, and Fiona is Irish but we were living at the time in Belgium. I was there because of my husband’s job but I now live in Chichester. Nikla and Fiona are still based in Belgium and we have regular Skype meetings. It works very smoothly.
When It came to finding a producer, it was quite a challenge as we were only looking at making small volumes of clothes initially. Eventually, through Fiona’s partner – Marc Gysemans of Gysemans Clothing – we found a Belgian workwear manufacturer called Alsico. We did a presentation to its board and they liked our idea so much that they incubated us in their factory.
They saw it as a good piece of diversification for them as they did not do any consumer wear. We got very favourable payment terms and through their development team helped us make the early prototypes and then onwards with the manufacturing.
Regarding funding we have used a mixture of our own funds, European grants and private investment.
Is it a challenge finding new customers and clients?
We sell directly to patients and their loved ones online, but we also target hospitals, hospices and charities. Yes, it can be challenging getting market access. Obviously, patients are going through their treatment so have many other things on their minds. Also, many hospitals can’t recommend commercial products to their patients.
We go into hospitals to talk to them about the benefits of our clothes. There is a reserve there because they know that long-term care patients are very vulnerable. But they do talk to their patients about them. However, they can’t be seen to be favouring one provider over another.
We are reaching out to more and more hospitals and patient groups. We are taking it one at a time.
What are your future plans?
We are currently looking for a new production partner, one which is used to working with jersey cotton. We are also developing an institutional range which would see us selling directly to hospitals who would then lease the clothes to patients.
We are very optimistic about the future. There is certainly a movement within the UK healthcare sector of improving patient mental and physical wellness during treatment by encouraging them to get up, dressed and moving, called #endPJparalysis. Doctors want patients to be dressed and active and to get out of their gowns. Isolation and deconditioning are now increasingly being recognised as being detrimental to survival.
We are looking to expand both in Europe and the US where there has already been a lot of interest in our clothes.
What one tip would you give to other startups?
Get as much advice and help as you can. For the first few years we were only three people and the help and support we received from a whole range of advisors and commercial partners helped us. We would not have made it otherwise.
We also worked hard to overcome our shortcomings by learning more about business management and the financial aspects of running a company. Protect your cash flow as much as possible! That is definitely one key learning.
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