14 April 2016 10:54:12 IST

Woollip: the pillow of your (sweet) dreams

A French entrepreneur develops a new fangled travel pillow to take the pain out of long-haul journeys

The one problem most people face on long-haul flights, or travel in general, is the inability to sleep. Travellers often end up feeling lethargic, experience dulling but aggravating pain in the neck, and sometimes even sustain other injuries while trying to get comfortable in a cramped seat. But now, all that is about to change.

Paris-based entrepreneur, innovator and former marketer Franck Levy (51) and his daughter Diane (21) have designed a travel pillow to help passengers have a more well-rested and peaceful journey. But this is no ordinary travel pillow. The pillow takes advantage of the only extra space you’re given on a plane or bus — right in front of you. With holes to stuff your arms in, Woollip , as it is called, can also be turned on its side to fill the crevice of a window seat. You can also tuck your phone inside so you can read or watch a movie as you prepare to sleep. Woollip takes only five breaths and about 15 seconds to inflate, and just two seconds to deflate. It folds up to the size of a brick and is said to weigh about as much as a smartphone. Woollip has gone through several versions and prototypes and is now open for funding on the platform Kickstarter .

In less than a month (the campaign was launched online on March 18), the project has exceeded its funding goal of €55,000, and still has another month of funding to go. Business Line on Campus had a brief chat with Franck about the product, its origins, and how it sets itself apart from similar products in the market.

Describe the process of developing the product from start to finish.

I came up with the idea after I had had a terrible 15-hour-long redeye non-direct flight from Paris to Shanghai. Diane was going to China for a six-month exchange semester in Tongji University. The flight was totally full and I turned out to be the unlucky guy. My entertainment system out of order, and my seat was broken and I could not recline.

I was trying to sleep on the tray table, and I saw a Chinese passenger kneeling between the seats with his head on his seat cushion. Here came the first seed of the idea of leaning forward, using the only available space on an economy class seat. We started by drawing the shape inspired by the massage chairs you can find in airports across the globe. I ordered a portable one to test and find the best position before buying airplane seats to adjust the prototypes.

From the idea, we designed several concepts. Meeting a patent specialist made us to focus on the idea of an inflatable device. We did also did a thorough market analysis to estimate and track potential and current competitors.

During the drafting of the international patent, we looked for industrial partners to build prototypes with.This was not easy in France, but finally we found our partner, which is a company that also supplies to the aviation industry. During the same period, we also decided to copyright the name Woollip worldwide. Our product is a flipped pillow, and it was logical to name it Woollip.

To design our pillow, our engineers worked with physiotherapists and aviation experts to produce the ideal shape to sleep comfortably in flights. Starting with a portable massage chair base, it was quite easy to design the shape. From the initial inflatable prototype, we manufactured more than 20 versions to obtain the perfect position.


How was your experience of pitching to investors and venture capitalists?

We worked with our own funds from the start. We pitched to three investors to start with; people who are friends of friends. The project has been very well received. But we decided to wait to put up the project on Kickstarter, in order to open up some real discussion online. We approached the global market with this, and figures have been amazing. The idea was to use crowdfunding in order to validate the concept, finance the first production, generate awareness and appeal, and above all, create a favourable environment for future discussion with retailers and duty-free shops. After just a week on Kickstarter and 1,000 backers, we started receiving messages and calls from international players like airlines and travel retailers.

How do you plan on selling the product? Would you be adopting a business-to-business model, or a business-to-consumer model?

Both B2B and B2C will be targeted. Internet, travel retail, airlines, trains, buses, power naps at the office, company gifts, there are countless ways to market and sell this concept. I also hear that the number of long-route train passengers in India is nearly the same as the number of airline passengers per year.

When you first launched the campaign on Kickstarter, did you think you would have such a quick and positive response?

I worked in the marketing and advertising industry for 30 years and the last 10 years on the international markets. Before launching our Kickstarter campaign, we analysed many parameters and felt this one was the most suited to gain the greatest response. Woollip is a viral product, and the issue it solves is international by nature. When a passenger sees the person sitting next to him sleep comfortably during a flight, he will be encouraged to find for himself, and so on.

What advice could you give inventors and entrepreneurs who want to launch their product or idea in the market?

You have to start with a deep analysis estimating market potential and knowing competition. Be sure that the market is scalable and can guarantee a fast return on investment. We all have good ideas; the challenge is to move from an idea to a commercial product. It takes a lot of energy, but we received a lot of support from people we have barely or never met; they were basically kind to us. If you are convinced that you have a good idea, you have to go for it 100 per cent. I have waited for 50 years to follow these rules!

What are your plans for Woollip's future?

Woollip has enormous potential. We really want it to become the new standard for Travel Pillow. But there is much to do on its use in other market segments. We have many other ideas to improve passenger comfort we will enlarge our products range. We have another patent on a product as simple as Woollip and really revolutionary but for this one we will need investors or partners. It is already being tested by two giants of the air industry. Waiting for good news!