Jack Dell'Accio never thought he'd be making mattresses.
The Laval, Que., entrepreneur was running a successful cabinet business when a family member was struck by cancer. The diagnosis prompted Mr. Dell'Accio to start researching the environmental causes of the disease, and ultimately it led to a life-changing career move.
"Basically you're Googling your way and calling your way to finding some answers, and when you get into that for about six months, you start to question everything around you," he said. "Sitting in for some of the treatment, we ended up talking about toxins and things that are hurting us instead of helping us, and I started to think I'd like to do something that could help out, to create products that wouldn't be harmful."
The result of Mr. Dell'Accio's quest is the Essentia line of natural memory foam mattresses. They are biodegradable and made of natural latex, essential oils and plant extracts. They have no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), no formaldehyde and no adhesives or bonding agents.
"Just because your immune system is strong enough to fight chemical off-gassing doesn't mean you have to put your body through that," he said. "You want something you won't regret sleeping on in 20, 30 years when they say the chronic exposure to chemicals we thought was not bad for you can have a catch-up effect later on in your life."
Since opening in 2006, Essentia has opened stores in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Santa Monica, Calif. Locations in Ottawa and San Francisco are coming soon. As well, Essentia's Baby Jeanius crib mattress is carried in more than 70 other retail stores across North America. Essentia has also benefited from the attention of high-profile media including O magazine, the Rachel Ray Show and the Dr. Oz Show, the latter of which caused a website crash after a massive influx of online visitors.
"A producer called me up on a Friday in February and said, 'We're doing the Dr. Oz Hot List, his favourite things, and he uses your pillow before every show,'" said Mr. Dell'Accio. "'However, whenever we do these Hot Lists, we like to give products to the studio audience. Would you be willing to do that? It airs Tuesday.' We were able to turn on a dime and gets the products to them."
When Mr. Dell'Accio decided to create a healthier mattress nearly a decade ago, he started by asking why major manufacturers were still using off-gassing polyurethane for memory foam instead of natural latex (his family was in the latex business, an industry he'd previously had no interest in). He discovered there were several problems with using latex in memory foam - most importantly, performance. Latex, which is made from rubber tree sap, didn't allow for adequate blood circulation for spinal alignment and support. As well, latex was much more expensive than polyurethane foam.
Undaunted, Mr. Dell'Accio decided he would try to create a natural memory foam. The process took nearly four years. "I thought it would be a lot easier than it was," he said.
"It's kind of like you reach a point every year where it's, 'Do I give this up?' Then you get a glimpse of light," he said. "Part of my character flaw is that I'm a very optimistic person, so it kept me going even if it may have looked like it was time to pack up and go home."
Mr. Dell'Accio's original plan was to give his memory foam formula to his family business and sell it to the major mattress manufacturers. But none of the companies he approached - Serta, Sealy, Simmons - was interested in using his product.
"The reality is if you want to make something natural at a very high quality, those components cost more money," he said. "I think petrochemical products exist today because they are relatively inexpensive, and that's why you don't find as many natural products out there."
Indeed, Essentia mattresses are not cheap - costs range from $1,489 for the Jeanius, which is topped with organic denim, to $4,537 for the Unity model. But Mr. Dell'Accio claims his products, which are all manufactured in-house, outperform regular memory foam mattresses in comfort, support and durability. In addition, he says, Essentia has "no carbon footprint. We don't have any waste, we don't create chemicals through our production process." And they give discounts to hybrid car owners.
As for why he was able to succeed with a product that the major manufacturers weren't interested in, Mr. Dell'Accio says his ignorance of the mattress world was an advantage.
"The reason I think it worked for me was that I didn't have that background (in the industry), or any of the assumptions or preconceptions," he said. "So what seemed a ridiculous angle to some of the people that I worked with was not ridiculous for me. I saw things that others did not."