UCC’s Ignite accelerator sparks ideas for better sleep and safer farming

New products include a holistic sleep mask and a seaweed-based silage pit covering

Marion Cantillon with her PitSeal product, a spray-on biofilm made from seaweed

Marion Cantillon with her PitSeal product, a spray-on biofilm made from seaweed

 

Long before Covid disrupted people’s lives, health experts were warning that sleep deprivation was reaching epidemic proportions. A good night’s sleep should last between seven and nine hours. Surviving long-term on less increases the chances of suffering from depression, anxiety, burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia. It also makes us grumpy, less tolerant and impatient.

Like many students, Eric Teahan, founder of smart sleep company Eclipse Sleep Bliss, found himself stressed and anxious around exam time. He lived in a noisy area, he was sharing a house with seven other people, and the curtains in his bedroom didn’t fully block out the light. As a result, his sleep suffered and Teahan often found himself awake in the witching hours.

“The idea for my business hit me one night as I was staring blankly at my ceiling unable to sleep,” he says. “I thought it would be great if there was a sleeping mask that blocked out both light and sound while playing some sort of soothing music. I had already come across binaural beats [based on sound wave therapy where two tones on slightly different frequencies sound in each ear] and this had helped me massively during exam time by calming anxiety. I had also heard it could help with sleep and started looking into how I could use it.”

With his sleep mask idea beginning to take shape, Teahan, who has an MSc in Marketing Practice, was accepted on the 12-month Ignite accelerator run by UCC in April of last year. He set up Eclipse Sleep Bliss in September and is aiming to have the sleep mask on the market by the end of 2021.

“We see ourselves as a smart health company with a mission to improve the health of others through better sleep,” Teahan says. “The core benefits of our mask include helping the user to fall asleep faster and to sleep more soundly. The mask connects via an app and plays through speakers built into the mask. It does this directly so there is no Bluetooth streaming through your head as you sleep. You can adjust the speakers to suit your sleeping position. For example, I’m a side sleeper so normal earphones or headphones are uncomfortable.

It’s providing peace of mind for people who can enter a safe space to relax, meditate and block out the world around them for a peaceful night’s rest

“The beats work by reducing the brain’s arousal through a process known as brainwave entrainment. This entrainment causes your brainwaves to sync up with the frequencies from the audio to lower stress and anxiety. Binaural beats can also be used as part of meditation before and after sleep. Surprisingly, listening to binaural beats for only 12 minutes is the equivalent to an hour’s meditation.”

Bootstrapped

Teahan has bootstrapped his start-up with initial costs contained at around €10,000 and he is now looking for funding to support further R&D and business development. He has yet to decide where the product will be made, as manufacturing costs here are too high, but he wants to keep production within Europe.

“Our product differs to what’s out there in a number of ways,” says Teahan, who is now working on his device with researchers from the Nimbus Research Centre in Cork, which is at the forefront of the development of cyber-physical systems. “Firstly it’s holistic, unlike sleeping pills that can mess with your body and don’t really solve the problem. Secondly, it’s providing peace of mind for people who can enter a safe space to relax, meditate and block out the world around them for a peaceful night’s rest. We aren’t just selling a product. We’re helping people improve their physical and mental health. The mask will be one of a number of sleep-related products we intend to offer and we will be selling directly to the public and B2B. We believe there is a sizeable corporate market for a product employers can give their employees to improve their sleep quality.”

Matrix

Marion Cantillon is a nutritional science graduate from UCC and the founder of PitSeal, an environmentally friendly alternative to the PVC sheeting and old tyres commonly used to cover silage pits all over the country. Cantillon’s solution is a spray-on substance that forms an airtight and watertight matrix on the surface of the silage that doesn’t tear or leak and is suitable for use on any farm with a silage pit.

The biofilm binds to the shape of the pit and creates a waxy gloss on the surface that is not easy to puncture – unlike plastic, which the crows can rip

PitSeal is a biofilm made from seaweed. It’s edible and when ingested by livestock it helps to reduce their methane emissions. Cantillon first became fascinated by the possibilities of biofilms during her final year at college when she developed a particular interest in edible food packaging. As the Kerry Young Dairy Farmer of the Year for 2020, Cantillon also knew all about the hazards faced by farmers, and when her uncle slipped and broke his leg on the plastic sheeting covering his silage pit, Cantillon felt there had to be a better and a safer way to protect silage.

“I started thinking about how I could apply what I’d learnt about biofilms to wrap a silage pit safely, securely and faster than the traditional method,” she says. “The biofilm binds to the shape of the pit and creates a waxy gloss on the surface that is not easy to puncture – unlike plastic, which the crows can rip, while plastic also gets slippery in wet conditions.”

Eco-friendly

Cantillon joined the Ignite programme with a view to developing and commercialising her PitSeal idea while also creating a business that would make farming safer and more eco-friendly.

“PitSeal achieves these objectives by getting rid of a potentially slippery plastic surface, cutting down on PVC use and reducing methane,” she says. “Controlling methane emissions from dairy and beef herds is becoming increasingly important as governments strive to meet their various international commitments to greenhouse gas emissions and carbon reduction.”

Cantillon has been able to pin initial development costs at a thrifty €45,000 largely because of the help she’s had from people who took a shine to her idea and were willing to pitch in for nothing.

“My advisory board has been fantastic, as have Liam Woulfe, CEO of Grassland Agro, and Prof Kevin Cashman of UCC. I also had great help from Murt Engineering who rowed in behind me to develop the applicator,” she says. “We have five pits lined up to test PitSeal this summer and once we have final proof of concept in the field we will begin scaling up.”

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