Post-surgery lingerie proves a success for Irish businesswoman

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Ciara Donlon of Theya Healthcare

Ciara Donlon of Theya Healthcare: “Patient-centric design is the core of our ethos and it impacts the whole business.”

Ciara Donlon of Theya Healthcare: “Patient-centric design is the core of our ethos and it impacts the whole business.”

 

Ciara Donlon took a gamble when she swapped her career in marketing with companies including RBS, Irish Life & Permanent and Vodafone to establish her own business.

The gamble seems to have paid off though with the businesswoman recently being presented with a Cartier award, which recognises female entrepreneurs who are heading up creative, socially impactful and financially sustainable start-ups.

Donlon entered the lingerie industry when she set up her own boutique in Ranelagh in 2010. After spotting a gap in the market she took to producing garments for those who had undergone surgery, with a particular focus on breast cancer patients.

Theya Healthcare, the Dublin-based start-up which Donlon established in 2014, now designs and manufactures post-surgery garments that not only look great but also promote healing and offer exceptional comfort and functionality.

The company has a strong presence in the Irish market with some of the largest public and private hospitals in the country among its customers. It also has many retail customers, including Meagher’s pharmacy group and Arnotts.

In 2016, the company began trading in the UK as a supplier to House of Fraser. It followed that earlier this year by becoming an approved supplier to the NHS. It is now establishing a presence in France, Belgium, Portugal and Canada.

What lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

I always wanted my own business and in 2010, after 11 years in marketing, I decided to open a lingerie store in Ranelagh, where I grew up. Breast cancer survivors regularly asked for comfortable, supportive, pretty bras, but I couldn’t find what they were looking for on the market. Seeing the distress this caused them at a very difficult time propelled me to do market research with 80 survivors and ultimately led to Theya Healthcare.

What makes your business unique?

Patient-centric design is the core of our ethos and it impacts the whole business. I included our customers in the design of our product range from the word go to ensure I could give them what they wanted.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

You know I am very lucky to say there have been numerous moments that I am very proud of: when our customers described the products as a hug in a bra, when I heard that women had experienced increased healing whilst wearing our products, when we successfully became an NHS supplier after two years of trading and most recently being honoured as the winner for Europe in the 2017 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and getting to the EY Entrepreneur of the year final.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Underestimating the time it takes between raising investment and seeing it in your bank account. That led to a few sleepless nights!

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

The most difficult experience I have had in business is when you realise someone is not a good fit for your team and company and decide to let them go.

How will your market look in three years?

Our core breast cancer market will have continued to grow as rates are unfortunately on the globally. However, earlier detection means survival rates are also much better. The other markets we are exploring have substantial reach.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

You might have an idea that you think is amazing but make sure you validate your product with your market before you put any money into developing the products. Another thing would be not to underestimate how much you need to spend on legal fees.