“I want to be a role model for female entrepreneurs”
CloudCuddle, a start-up launched by student/entrepreneur Lotte Leufkens
May 2018 - By Jurjen Slump
She has won prize after prize in the past year, lunched with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima and Financieele Dagblad voted her one of the 50 under-35 talents of the year. Lotte Leufkens (25) is founder of CloudCuddle, a start-up company that has developed an innovative mobile bed tent for disabled children to sleep safely away from home. In an interview with Home of Innovation, Leufkens talks about entrepreneurship and her role as a female entrepreneur in a man’s world. “I want to show that women can also start a successful business.”
“I know a great deal about steel and wood. But not much about inflatable things,” says the Mechanical Engineering student as she describes the birth of CloudCuddle. Nevertheless, an inflatable bed frame turned out to be the Egg of Columbus. The frame ensures that the CloudCuddle weighs just three kilos and fits into a small weekend bag. This offers a number of major advantages over existing systems, which are much heavier and bulkier. And usually the space just isn't there. “Families with disabled children already have many aids and devices to carry around. They easily fill up the entire boot of their car.”
The CloudCuddle has been on the market since June 2017 and about 50 pieces were sold in the first half of the year. Customer reactions are quite positive. “It’s really nice to get photos and videos from them, to see that they can finally go on holiday or have a sleepover at a friend’s place,” Leufkens says. “That they could even go to the hospital without feeling too much stress and the mother no longer has to sleep on the floor with her child on a mattress, but that they both had their own bed. That´s really fantastic.” She adds that it is also a “huge motivation” for her to continue with the company.
The idea behind CloudCuddle came to Lotte three-and-a-half years ago, when she was doing her minor in Biomedical Engineering along with co-founder Francesca Lucas, an Industrial Design student. “During the minor, a family from Delft came to visit us with their disabled son and talked to us about how it affected their daily life. Sleeping away from home was the biggest problem.” This inspired the duo to develop a solution for this. “When the minor ended, the family said: ‘If you really put this on the market, you could help so many people’!”
Since they were both full-time students at the time, Lotte and Francesca decided to work on this project on a part-time basis, combining it with their studies. They managed to raise capital for building the prototypes, but finding the right partner to produce an inflatable frame was not easy. "Eventually we ended up with a kitesurfing company." Kites have inflatable frames and CloudCuddles are made using the same technology. It makes the bed tent robust enough to ensure that children do not fall out.
"Kites hit the water at gigantic speeds, so they have to be incredibly sturdy and strong," explains Lotte. They have tested the prototypes extensively in people's homes. "Often in weekends, because we were studying during the week." This turned out to be extremely useful. "You actually get a chance to visit your target group at home. You see how they live, where the problem really lies and what you have to take into account when designing your product such as, for example, the fabric cover that goes over the frame."
After another six months of development, the CloudCuddle was launched last year. The fact that two students ended up creating a small revolution in the area of assistive devices for disabled people doesn't really surprise Leufkens. "There is relatively little innovation taking place in the disability sector." It mostly involves customised devices, and often they are specifically related to various rare diseases. As she says, that makes it "extremely difficult" to offer a universal solution.
By 2040, there will be more than two million people over the age of 80. We should at least be able to find a simple solution for older people to sleep in a manner that protects their dignity.Lotte Leufkens, student and entrepreneur
This is what prompted Leufkens to start working on the CloudCuddle Senior, which can be used in geriatric care. Here too, there is great need for a solution that would allow elderly people suffering, for example, from Alzheimer's or dementia to live in dignity. "Once they develop this condition, it becomes difficult to keep them in their beds," she says. "At the moment, these people either need to be locked up in their rooms or be monitored all night by a carer. Not only is this very disrespectful, it's also unsafe."
Healthcare costs for elderly with episodes of falling amount to about 12,000 Euros. Given the rapidly aging population, these costs are expected to increase significantly in the longer term. In this scenario, the CloudCuddle Senior is a relatively inexpensive solution, because development in the field of geriatric care is almost at a standstill, while current alternatives such as hospital beds protected by a large cage are much more expensive and take up a lot of space. "By 2040, there will be more than two million people over the age of 80. We should at least be able to find a simple solution for older people to sleep in a manner that protects their dignity."
CloudCuddle aims to grow considerably in the coming years. Leufkens is in the process of applying for a grant for the development of the CloudCuddle Senior. In addition, she wants to attract new investors for the CloudCuddle Junior. Marketing efforts need to be intensified to ensure that brand awareness increases. "We've noticed that customers are really happy when they purchase a CloudCuddle, which is why we want to reach out to more people."
Alongside all her entrepreneurial activities, Leufkens also plans to graduate. The combination of studying and doing business has been "very tough" in recent years, but it is also a great learning experience. "In the past year, I've learned a lot about setting goals. What I want, why I want it, when and how," she says. And that has helped. Her graduation studies are now progressing in a very structured manner, taking up two days a week. The rest of the time is spent on the start-up.
It's not yet common to use inflatable objects as pieces of furniture, although they could potentially be used for this purpose.Lotte Leufkens, student and entrepreneur
CloudCuddle is located in the YES!Delft building, and being a spin-off from TU Delft it has received an investment from Delft Enterprises (DE). She has also received a lot of technical support from DE in recent years. "Whenever we faced any financial or legal issues, we could always contact DE and there was someone available to help us out the very next day. That was amazing."
Finding capital was and remains a challenge. But selling her product also proves difficult at times. "People have to be convinced that, even though the CloudCuddle is inflatable, it is resilient, does not leak and is safe," she explains. "It's not yet common to use inflatable objects as pieces of furniture, although they could potentially be used for this purpose." So it is mainly a question of changing certain perceptions. That is why her marketing is also aimed at bringing as many people as possible in direct contact with the CloudCuddle, so that they can see for themselves how strong and sturdy the product is.
Taking on responsibility for a company at a young age has also been a challenge from a personal perspective. What helped her were her talks with fellow entrepreneurs. "After winning all those prizes, I met a lot of people. They hear your story and ask critical questions. And that helped by giving me further food for thought."
It’s a man’s world and if you want to change that, you have to put women in the spotlight every now and thenLotte Leufkens, student and entrepreneur
There was also a lot of attention from the media. Although this interest was partly due to the intrinsic appeal of the product, Leufkens suspects that it also has to do with the fact that she is a woman. “I think it’s also one of the reasons why I was invited to the royal lunch for exceptional performers (Uitblinkerslunch) with the King and Queen,” she says. “It’s a man’s world and if you want to change that, you have to put women in the spotlight every now and then. I understand that.”
Leufkens would also find it “pretty cool” to be able to serve as a role model. “Since winning the TedXAmsterdamWomen Start-up Award in November 2017, I’ve been receiving more and more invitations to give talks. Because people find it fascinating to hear me talk about the company and the fact that I am a female entrepreneur.”
After all, the stage is often dominated by men. “Not that I have any problem with that, but it’s just that female entrepreneurs are a much rarer breed. Especially in Delft.” So we can certainly expect to hear a lot more from Leufkens in the future. “I’d like to prove that just because it’s all men out there doesn’t mean that women can’t do it too!”