Theya Healthcare CEO Ciara Donlon eyes global expansion
Irish entrepreneur on the success of her growing company and what makes it so much more than a lingerie firm
Theya Healthcare CEO Ciara Donlon: 'Retailers have been taking a lot of interest in us after the NHS took us on. It has opened a huge number of doors for us.' Photograph: Dave Meehan
It’s the stuff of nightmares. You’re busy building a successful brand only for the company name to become associated with a hardline militant organisation behind many of the most appalling atrocities of recent years.
“We literally had a weekend to come up with a new name as we were going into an important meeting with House of Fraser, so we had to move fast,” says Ciara Donlon, chief executive of the firm formerly known as Isis Rose.
Now rebranded as Theya Healthcare, the fast-growing company, which produces post-surgery lingerie, had little choice but to discard its former moniker once it was adopted by Islamic State.
“I had already come up with a lot of the branding for Isis Rose but thankfully we were still only at the stage where we had samples and were not yet into full production,” adds Donlon.
Such a setback might knock some entrepreneurs, but not Donlon. The swift rebrand worked with Theya Healthcare (the name derives from a Hindu goddess) sealing a deal to sell its products online in what is one of the UK’s best-known and most respected department stores early last year.
Theya has gone on to strike plenty of other deals since that link-up with House of Fraser, with Donlon also winning plenty of plaudits. Not only is she shortlisted for this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year award but she was also recently named a laureate at the 2017 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. Donlon was just one of six laureates chosen from almost 1,900 applicants in 120 countries at the awards, which celebrate female entrepreneurs heading up creative, socially impactful and financially sustainable start-ups.
It’s not bad for a woman behind a company that was only established in February 2015 and who has spent most of her life working in online sales and marketing for companies such as Ulster Bank and Vodafone.
Design and manufacture
Based at NovaUCD, University College Dublin’s innovation hub, Theya Healthcare specialises in the design and manufacture of lingerie suitable for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, radiotherapy treatment or cosmetic surgery.
The company might make bras and briefs but it is anything but a regular lingerie firm. In fact, Donlon describes Theya as a medical devices firm, rather than a manufacturer of garments. What’s more, she has the evidence to back up the assertion.
The businesswoman has successfully developed her own proprietary blend of super-soft bamboo. Teaming up with researchers from UCD’s school of biomedical engineering to run clinical trials, she was able to confirm that the unique bamboo mix fabric she had settled on helped in the recovery of women who had undergone breast cancer surgery.
Retailers have been taking a lot of interest in us after the NHS took us on
Theya has since gone on to secure two ISO quality certifications for its products and so effective are the post-operative bras, that they have officially been classified as a medical device with Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) taking the company on as an approved supplier.
Sales have risen 46 per cent over the last year as the company has rapidly expanded into mainland Europe and Canada. It is currently eyeing opportunities in the United States and is enjoying particular success in the UK after getting that NHS seal of approval.
“I was surprised we got accepted by the NHS because we hadn’t even been trading for two years and they were looking for three years’ financials, but we became a supplier to it at the start of this year for bras, and also now for maternity briefs,” said Donlon.
Given that there are some one million births a year in the UK, that is an awful a lot of briefs. But that’s not where it ends for Theya Healthcare.
“Retailers have been taking a lot of interest in us after the NHS took us on. It has opened a huge number of doors for us and we’re currently in talks to expand further into UK retail with a major company,” says Donlon.
Theya Healthcare also has big ambitions stateside, with a particular focus on the private medical sector, where sales of its products have jumped 170 per cent over the last 12 months.
“We’re really focused on the US at the moment, partly because of Brexit but also because the awards we’ve won or have been shortlisted for have put us on the radar of big players internationally much quicker than I imagined.
“We’re currently speaking to one of the biggest lingerie producers in the world about a strategic partnership which would accelerate growth significantly if it goes ahead,” she says.
“In five years’ time I envisage us being a global player. We’ll hopefully be serving many more niche markets and, if it all goes well, will have hit our revenue targets of €100 million,” Donlon adds.
The Dubliner who grew up in Ranelagh, now lives primarily in France with her husband Laurent, a wine importer, son Senan (4), and a cat named Chablis. She spends at least one week in four back in Ireland.
While expansion in her newly adopted homeland is on the cards, it is not in Theya’s immediate plans due to the complicated nature of the market.
It is all a far remove from the businesswoman’s earlier life, which centred on working in online sales and marketing roles for a number of big-name corporates.
Donlon says she was always drawn to doing something for herself. Previous escape plans included training to be a pilot. While that didn’t happen, she jumped at the chance to set up her own business when an option to take voluntary redundancy came up in 2009.
But her move into post-operative garments certainly didn’t seem preordained even if Donlon feels as though she is doing the work she was destined to do.
“I knew nothing about the lingerie business but ended up opening a shop in Ranelagh after speaking to a solicitor who owned a shoe store there,” she says.
“We got talking about changing careers and she told me a lingerie shop was needed in the village. After investigating the opportunity, I opened one called Cupcakes.
“It did well financially but the real opportunity for me came as a result of the number of women who kept coming in for maternity bras,” says Donlon. “I quickly realised that many of those coming in were people who had recently undergone surgery and were just looking for something comfortable to wear.
“I thought they must be in such distress to have to resort to wearing nursing bras at a moment when many had possibly become infertile due to the treatment they were on,” she adds.
Donlon began investigating post-surgery lingerie and found that there was little choice available.
“What I found out was that most bras were made by what were originally engineering companies and were all about function. They were primarily meant to hold up prosthesis. At the other extreme were lacy ‘sexy’ bras, which certainly wasn’t what people undergoing surgery wanted at that moment.”
Donlon experimented with a number of possible fabrics before settling on bamboo for her product range. Clinical tests proved that the particular bamboo mix chosen actively helped patients recovering from surgery.
Donlon gets excited when it comes to discussing just how good bamboo is as a fabric
“Validating the findings scientifically in UCD was by far the best decision I’ve ever made as it allowed us to seek ISO validation for the products as medical devices rather than for them to be marketed as ‘fashion’ items,” she says.
So keen to avoid the products being seen as the latter was Donlon that, having ditched the name Isis Rose in a hurry, she temporarily settled on the brand name Theya Lingerie. But she quickly decided to amend it.
“There was definitely some giggling when I said the word ‘lingerie’ so it was yet another reason to distance ourselves from this by positioning our products as medical devices,” says Donlon.
Theya may be performing well but, in terms of post-surgery lingerie, it doesn’t have the field completely to itself. There are three big competitors, one of which – Trulife – is also Irish.
So what’s in the secret sauce?
Donlon gets excited when it comes to discussing just how good bamboo is as a fabric. She says that, in addition to being naturally anti-bacterial, it is considerably more absorbent than cotton, is better at wicking [drawing moisture away from the skin] than most other fabrics and is fully breathable. If that weren’t enough, bamboo is also a sustainable resource that does not require any pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers in its cultivation.
Donlon admits there is nothing to stop competitors from making their own bamboo bras although she stresses that it is the particular mix of materials that makes the difference. Nonetheless, as well as having a patent pending, she’s in a rush to scale Theya Healthcare to safeguard its future.
“I think a lot of our competitors are waiting to see how we get on but of course at some point they could decide to make a move, which is part of the reason why I’m looking at strategic partnerships as we need to scale as fast as we can,” says Donlon.
She is also aware of potential buyers for the company.
“It could happen that someone comes in for us,” she says. “There are definitely people following our progress but while I don’t know about the future, I certainly wouldn’t sell right now. I want to grow the business globally and get our products out to as many people as we can.”
Name: Ciara Donlon
Position: Founder and chief executive of Theya Healthcare
From: Ranelagh, Dublin Lives: Prayssas, France
Family: Married to Laurent, they have one son Senan (4) and a cat called Chablis
Something you might expect: Ciara is looking to grow Theya quickly
Something you might not expect: She has a pilot’s licence and can play classical drums.