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Dr. Wei-Shin Lai is Pennsylvania Small Business Person of the Year

Dr. Wei-Shin Lai, second from left, accepts her award

Instead of tossing, turning and reliving the same nightmare – the inability to fall back asleep after fielding emergency room phone calls -- Dr. Wei-Shin Lai and her husband, Jason, spent those sleepless nights at their kitchen table.

He soldered, while she used a hotel sewing kit to stitch the perfect, non-addictive aid for the sleep deprived who were tired of counting sheep.  SleepPhones® are a unique combination of flat speakers and wires, all housed in a soft, comfortable fleece headband. These simple yet innovative headphones allow those experiencing difficulties sleeping to get some much needed sleep by listening to meditative sounds or music. 

SleepPhones® and its’ complementary exercise headphones, RunPhones®, have Lai, 39, traveling to Washington, D.C. where she will compete for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Small Business Person of the Year. That honor will be announced during the 53rd annual celebration of National Small Business Week.

“I applaud Dr. Lai’s creativity; she designed an invention solving a problem she and others routinely face,” said SBA Pittsburgh District Director Dr. Kelly Hunt, who owns a pair of RunPhones®. “Her products not only are amazing, they also promote a healthier lifestyle.”

Dr. Lai began her quest at the local level, when she was chosen as the Pittsburgh District Office Small Business Person of the Year.  The nomination package then was forwarded to the regional SBA office in Philadelphia to compete with the Eastern Pennsylvania winner to represent the state.

“This is the biggest win ever and more than validates everything we’ve accomplished as we’re not business people,” Lai explained. “We have a great team with an attractive work atmosphere; people think we must be from the Silicon Valley not Erie.”

Ten years ago, the husband-wife duo created their first headband prototype. Purchasing various fabrics, they settled on fleece and bought the flat headphones online crafting the first 500 units in their house. “We created a company, named it AcousticSheep, set up a website, and shipped the orders using the USPS (United States Postal Service)” Lai said.

Reception was phenomenal, as they sold out of SleepPhones® within a year.

“We didn’t advertise, but we did put sleep headphones on the map for Google; it turns out people were looking for these,” Lai added. “We figured we were on to something and hired local seamstresses to stitch our products.”

Lai began taking as many courses she could from the Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC), an SBA and state-funded entity helping small businesses in every phase of development. “I took QuickBooks, financing and learned how to write a business plan enabling us to receive a line of credit for AcousticSheep,” she added. “The SBDC provided me with contacts so I was able to negotiate a contract with a local Pennsylvania sewing company.

According to Lai, her husband discovered music with binaural beats where each ear experiences different sound frequencies or hums helping one fall asleep faster. “We offer music and sound apps to our customers. People can even listen to audio books or sports podcasts,” she explained.

When the doctor discovered her customers were using SleepPhones® for exercise, she bought lightweight fabric and created RunPhones® -- headbands that stay put during workouts.

Fast-forward nine years and Lai no longer practices medicine; instead she serves as CEO for AcousticSheep. She’s relocated to Erie to a larger facility for storage, warehousing and administrative offices and the Gannon University SBDC now assists Dr. Lai. AcousticSheep’s flock of employees has grown to 25 and sales are on the uptick growing at $1million a year since 2012.

While her patented headphones in a headband have been featured in various retail stores and on numerous, national TV shows, this summer, Dr. Lai, her plush animal mascot, Cirrus the sheep, and her lifestyle products will appear on the home shopping channel QVC.

“All this because I wanted to fall back to sleep to meditative music and couldn’t because ear buds hurt my ears and I couldn’t lie on my side with headphones!”

 

 

“Todays SBA; Smart, Bold, Accessible”

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Company Name: 
AcousticSheep
Location: 
Erie, Pennsylvania