Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite - Totem is awake, protecting your sleep

CompanyTotem Protected

Started playing:  Q2/2015

Joined the band:  Q2/2017


The bed bug control market is estimated to reach $5bn by 2019. Bed bugs are an increasing global problem for two main reasons: increased immunity towards pesticides and soaring global travel. The team has developed an autonomous bed bug protector, applicable for both hotels and households worldwide.




Totem Interview



From an unpleasant hotel experience grew the idea, which turned these guys to become the rescuers of the hospitality industry. We had the pleasure to chat with the “Bedbug killers” Martim, Aku and Vertti, the team behind Totem. It’s a company that has invented an intelligent new way to prevent bed bug populations from growing and ruining your sweet dreams. You know, those nasty little creatures that invades your bed and gives you a rash.

They told us about their interesting story and how they ended up working as new age pest controllers.



Icebreaker(IB):

Hi guys, nice that you had time to meet us. How is everything going?

Martim:

Hi, everything is great. Lot of work, but we are excited because our first order will soon be shipped from our product line, so that our Hotel clients in London, Helsinki and Malmö will get their orders delivered.

Aku:

A lot is going on, and we are thrilled to get the first feedback of our new product and prove how effective it is.

IB:

That’s excellent to hear, you have come a long way already. Many might not know what Totem is, so can you explain about that a little bit?

Martim:

Yeah sure! Totem’s mission is to advance safer travel. Totem is the first autonomous bed bug protection system that prevents infestations and protects guests’ sleep 24/7. By using Totem, hotels save costs and safeguard their reputation. In the long run, we think the use of Totem increases their reputation as well, given that 25% of hotel guests check their bed for bed bugs upon arrival.

Our product is a set of bed legs that attract, trap and detect bed bugs. Once installed, the hotel and its guests are protected around the clock. If any bed bugs are introduced, they are drawn into the leg thanks to CO2 of the sleeping guest – Totem legs simply catch them elegantly on their way. It’s a traditional method, enhanced with a modern approach.

Vertti:

We believe the nastiest problems require the most elegant solutions. That’s why our patented solution is a combination of aesthetics and functionality for making the ultimate solution for preventing bed bugs. Our products release the user from doing regular manual inspections, and the application keeps them updated with current room status.

IB:

That sounds cool, can you guys tell us about your background and what are your roles in the company?

Martim:

Our whole team has been studying at Aalto University. My background is in Finance and CEMS International Management. At Totem, I’m the leading the venture as CEO and responsible for the business side and product strategy.

Aku:

As Martim said, I have also studied at Aalto University and currently working as the CPO at Totem. My responsibilities focus on the more physical side of the product and the production.

Vertti:

My background is in Industrial Design, and here at Totem I am the Head of Design, so we work closely together with Aku to develop the actual product.

Aku:

We also have great developers in our team, who work daily on making the software side of our product deliver what we promise.

IB:

This is an unusual industry to start a business. Could you explain how you came up with the idea of Totem?

Martim:

Totem started as a spin-off from our previous company, Luteiden Torjunta Helle, which we founded four years ago while still studying at Aalto. My girlfriend and I were traveling in Indonesia and suspected we had brought bed bugs with us. She didn’t leave me alone until I called pest controllers to the flat. I became frustrated with existing solutions, and that’s how we founded Finland’s first bed bug heat treatment business, Luteiden Torjunta Helle.

It was while growing the business that we understood the real problem in the industry is not extermination, but prevention. It takes about six weeks to notice a problem and by then what started as a 1-2 bugs issue has become a large population. We thought if we can come up with something preventive, some people might be willing to pay for it and we’d be able to stop the global epidemic while at it.

Aku:

Through our findings in the traditional bed bug control business, our journey to find a simple solution to prevent bedbugs gradually grew in our minds until we came up with our intelligent and elegant bed bug preventing service, Totem.

IB:

For how long have you been working on this project?

Aku:

We started in March 2016 and since then have been developing the product and software to get it to the point where we are now. Startups are nowadays typically focusing on software alone. We are a company that produces a hardware product too. The processes of developing a hardware product differs a lot from coding. Conceptualization, prototype development, and testing take a long time, and after that comes the real production process which is an entire world of its own.

Simplified like this, it might sound like a fast and easy process, but that’s not the truth. To build a well-functioning, high-quality product from the start requires a lot of work, capital and an enormous amount of feedback and iterations throughout the process.

IB:

How was the feedback for your product during the first tests? And are you only focusing on hotels or also private homes?

Vertti:

It was excellent, especially from hotels and other facilities that have been struggling with bed bugs before.

Aku:

As an answer to your other question, we also tried to test our product with Airbnb hosts, but it didn’t break through with the efforts we used for it. As we already knew, the risk for a single room to get bed bugs is minimal compared to a huge hotel with hundreds of rooms. Our focus is now on bigger facilities such as hotels, but the product also works perfectly for private home if someone feels that they should need professional prevention.

IB:

How big issue are the bed bugs? And how about competition in this field?

Aku:

It is an enormous global issue. They appear mostly in hotels and other facilities with a lot of visitors, usually in bigger metropolitan cities such as New York, London and so on. It is a growing problem because no one has invented a preventing solution for it, before now.

Vertti:

Pest populations have grown steadily during the last years, which according to research will continue at a 5% annual rate until 2022. This trend depends on various factors, such as an increase in population, rising urbanization and global warming. The insect pest control market, regarding value, is projected to reach around 17 Billion USD by 2022 worldwide. Even if bed bugs are only a part of this market, the growth shows the increasing need for products like ours.  

Martim:

We have competitors, which can be divided into three categories. First, comes the manually made inspections done by pest control. Second are companies that kill them when the damage already has occurred, with heat or poison. The third category is equipment that produces carbon dioxide or some other bait to attract bed bugs and then trap them.

Unfortunately, most of these solutions are very costly and require continuous maintenance. These products and actions also raise negative attention from hotel guests.

IB:

Totem is usually known as a spiritual symbol for ancient cultures and communities. Why did you choose this name?

Aku:

Yeah it may not directly explain what we are doing, but it has a deeper thought behind it. As you mentioned Totem is a community symbol that chases away bad spirits, and in our case, the bed bugs are the bad spirits, so our product is the “Totem” that scares them away.

IB:

What kind of experience has this entrepreneurial journey been for you?

Martim:

When we started our first company, Luteiden Torjunta Helle, I was just finishing my master’s degree, and it worked as a soft landing into entrepreneurship. There was little risk involved, as I identified myself primarily as a student – the company was a side project. With Totem it has been different because this is our full-time job and the stakes are higher.

Totem also differs in the way that it is a new-to-the-world product that required thorough R&D process and more significant external investments. I think we’ve managed very well, considering that we raised money for the first time only a few months ago after 15 months of bootstrapped product development. You can achieve surprisingly much with little resources.

I assume that I can speak for all of us when I say that is has been challenging but also enriching journey. I think no one of us could ever have imagined working against bed bugs if someone would have asked it five years ago.

IB:

Would you recommend other people to become entrepreneurs?

Martim:

There are two types of entrepreneurship. There are those who start with an already existing concept, by applying an existing blueprint, for example, a restaurant or a construction business, and only make small changes to the core concept. This was the case with our first firm, Helle. Then there are those who invent something new-to-the-world from scratch, without an existing blueprint, like Totem.

So, we have tried both categories, and both are good options. The important part of understanding is that the latter involves way more risk and, if you go with the latter, you need to be comfortable with that risk. I don’t see the point in becoming an entrepreneur just for the sake of it. But if you have a good idea and you have the passion to drive it forward, then I think it’s a perfect way for some people to fulfill themselves and build a business while at it.

IB:

How has the support from Icebreaker helped you on your journey to defeat the bed bugs?

Aku:

They have been great mentors especially when it comes to sales where their expertise has been of great value for us. Of course, we have got help from them in other fields as well, where our knowledge hasn’t been that sharp from the beginning. Shortly said, we have gained a lot from our cooperation with Icebreaker, and it has been a pure pleasure to team up with them.



–––The End–––