New Slant On Sleeping | Elevated Sleep Systems

Kelli Minson, CEO of Gravity Solutions, displays her creation. “I was never really in this for the money,” Minson says of the Gravity1st inflatable mattress. “If I can prevent one person from getting esophageal cancer – wouldn’t that be something?”
Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / © 2012 Houston Chronicle

Elevated Sleep Systems: Every night for weeks, Kelli Minson and her husband slept on a makeshift bed in their living room.

It was the spring of 2008, and Dr. Matt Minson had suffered a serious bout of acid reflux that landed him in the emergency room.

His wife’s solution was to shove a rolled-up rug under the head of their mattress, then place a downward-sloping support under their backs to create an incline.

When she tried to find something like that in stores, she couldn’t. So she invented one herself. Her Gravity1st inflatable mattress is available via SkyMall magazine, various etailers and will also appear at Gallery Furniture in Houston.

“Doctors tell you to elevate your head while you sleep if you have reflux, but the problem is that it should be the whole body, not just the head,” Kelli Minson said. “Bending in the middle only makes reflux worse.”

Acid reflux happens when stomach acids rise in the esophagus because the valve separating it from the stomach has weakened. Some sufferers use bricks or books to raise the head of their beds.

“But I wanted to make the bed look normal,” said Minson. “The incline I created for Matt. The fact that my mattress is inflatable so it can be put away … that I did that for me.”

The twin-size version of the Gravity1st sells for $249, the queen for $299 and the king for $379.

“One of the reflux medicines sells for $350 for a one-month supply,” Minson said. “My goal was that none of my mattresses would cost more than that – and I got close.”

First step: a patent

Despite the fact the mattress employs the laws of gravity, getting it to consumers has been an uphill journey. Minson’s first step was to patent her creation in 2009.

“I had to prove it was different from anything else out there,” she said.

While the patent was pending, Minson interested the makers of the Aero­Bed inflatable mattress in her invention. Over the next year, she signed a licensing agreement with AeroBed, which spent almost $1 million on prototypes.

In October 2010, Minson stood at a factory in China, and saw the final prototype roll off the line. During that trip, she learned that Coleman – best known for camping equipment – had bought AeroBed, and that only two AeroBed executives remained.

“Coleman’s parent company makes home products, but not home-health products,” Minson said. “I knew they’d lock my design in a closet and it’d never see the light of day, so I asked them not to renew my license agreement, and then I walked away.”

Search for an angel

Minson spent the next two years trying to interest an angel investor.

“Typically, they’re more interested in proprietary technology companies that have high returns,” said Leo Womack, former president of the Houston Angel Network and a longtime angel investor.

“Kelli had never been the CEO of a startup – or what we call a ‘serial entrepreneur,’ ” Womack said. “It’s very difficult for first-time CEOs to get an angel investor. It can be done; it’s just hard.”

Minson got frustrated: “I decided to go to the owner of our factory instead and ask him to become an investor.”

Which he did. At the same time, Minson used her own money to hire a firm in Austin to produce a series of five YouTube videos. They, in turn, caught the eye of the SkyMall catalogue’s makers.

The Gravity1st ad appeared in the holiday issue of SkyMall.

She also interested Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale to carry her product. All told, Minson estimates some $2 million has been invested to get the product to market – half of that provided by the company that originally wanted to license it.

“The thing is, reflux acid can lead to esophageal cancer,” Minson said. “I was never really in this for the money. If I can prevent one person from getting esophageal cancer – wouldn’t that be something?”

Sandra Bretting is a Houston freelance writer.   | Elevated Sleep Systems

Creator of a sloping, inflatable mattress wants her restful product to help relieve acid reflux
By Sandra Bretting | November 4, 2012 | Updated: November 4, 2012 12:47pm