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Axon Sleep Research Laboratories

By
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

In a tiny office hidden behind empty cubicles on the first floor of Barus and Holley, a collection of Brown graduates and three current students are developing a product that could change the way the world sleeps.

Nearly two years ago, a student on the West Coast complained to a friend at Brown that because of early morning grogginess, her test had gone poorly. She suggested that an alarm clock that could detect your sleep patterns and wake you up in a light stage of sleep would solve the problem.

Within months, a team of students with combined engineering and entrepreneurial expertise came together and incorporated Axon Sleep Research Laboratories, intent on developing a product with exactly that purpose.

“There has been 20 years of research of sleep inertia, but no one had done anything with it,” said Axon President Eric Shashoua ‘04.5. “We are really the first to come up with something that is not a gimmick, but a real product, based on real science.”

By the end of 2004, Axon Labs had raised over $250,000 and signed with an industrial design firm to develop the aesthetics of their product – SleepSmart – beyond a headband and Altoids tin. This February, they obtained a permanent patent on the product. Shashoua said they intend to test the device this summer and begin selling it in 2006. Shashoua said the product will likely last up to 700 consecutive days and be priced at roughly $199.

Although a grant obtained through Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine allows Axon to base their office on campus, they are autonomous from the University, like any other student business. But unlike many Web-based campus startups that do not need funding before making revenue, Axon benefited from the support of Brown alumni – some of whom they met at an Entrepreneurship Program event. Shashoua said two of the company’s board members and half of its investors are alumni.

Both Shashoua and Business Development Manager Jason Donahue ’05 have been involved in previous business ventures and said that their experience helped get Axon on track. “We knew what the process was and how important it was to get a lot of things knocked out of the way quickly,” Shashoua said. “We were careful to take people on our team who we knew to be highly responsible and high-performing people.”

The fundraising process took longer than expected, and Shashoua spent most of his time attracting investors. But once checks started coming in, people were calling “out of the blue,” he said. “We thought: How does this happen? Just two months earlier we were being rejected.”

Axon now faces yet another round of fundraising, as well as questions about the best way to distribute and market their product. Still, if the response SleepSmart has received at presentations around the country is any indication, interest in the product is considerable.

“A lot of people say ‘Oh, I don’t need one, but my spouse does,’ ” Donahue said.

The Axon team’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and confidence in their success has caused some members to turn down what Shashoua described as “compelling opportunities” in order to stick with their own venture.

“I’m going to be working with these guys for as long as it takes,” said Chief Technology Officer Ben Rubin ’05, adding that he now thinks differently about his future because of the experience.

But Axon’s rewards even thus far have not come without some personal costs. The difficulty of balancing student and business lives is probably why many Brown businesses fail, Donahue said. “We’ve all been sleep deprived, which is really ironic,” Shashoua said.

“It took time and a little bit of risk to make the leap to entrepreneurship, but so far it’s already been rewarding,” Donahue said. “This way I’m not a cog in the machine. I see exactly what I am doing for this company.”

As far as their eventual goals for Axon, Donahue and Shashoua agreed that while any entrepreneur who could take their company public would seize the opportunity, they are simply focusing on bringing their product to the market.

“Getting on ‘Good Morning America,’ that’d be a good goal,” Donahue said.

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