Acoustic panels mounted on a wall

Rom & Tonik

Coarse wool, fine design: They have gone in for design and trademark registration rather than patents. This makes Rom & Tonik® well placed to conquer the world market with acoustic panels based on coarse wool.

Text: Atle Abelsen

Wool is a superb raw material for many applications. When Birgitte Linde Røsvik and Mats Herding Solberg embarked on their master's dissertations in industrial design at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in 2012, they were given the challenge of finding new or uncommon areas of use for wool in industrial contexts.

After some development of ideas, analyses and tests, they found that this raw material can actually be very suitable for soundproofing in buildings. At the same time, it is possible to utilise a coarse grade of wool for which there is otherwise less demand and which is consequently cheaper than the fine grade, for example merino wool, that is used in the textile industry.

In 2012, while they were still working on their respective master's assignments, they started up the company that would later be named Rom & Tonik®. They won the Venture Cup, a major business plan competition, and the ball started rolling. Birgitte was the first to complete her master's degree, which was concerned with business cases and early ideas. Mats then carried on working on Birgitte's results in his master's dissertation and they travelled to Mongolia to find partners and develop the first product.

"In Mongolia they have a long tradition of producing and utilising the precise grade of wool we were interested in," says Mats. When he returned form Mongolia after a few weeks in 2012, he had partners interested in cooperation, a manufacturer and the first product – FeltTile – in place. The first pilot sale to a test customer was made as early as December 2012. It then took a year before the first commercial sale was made.

Patent assessment

The entrepreneur duo were advised to start a patenting process as early as possible. "But we saw quite soon that it would be both difficult and, above all, expensive to patent our ideas. In addition, it is relatively uncommon to patent in the textile and furniture industry. Very few products have a life of more than 3 to 5 years, which is far too short for a patent. On other hand, it is most common to protect the design of products," says Solberg.
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Nevertheless, he is not opposed to patenting individual details later on. "It may be details such as suspension mechanisms or manufacturing methods," he says.

Solberg and Røsvik also have ideas about mixing wool with various other materials. "We will do more research to find optimal solutions for acoustics, specific frequency ranges and hygroscopic properties, for example. This is a more research-driven development, with greater potential for patenting."
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Early brand building

Brand building started back in 2013, before the first commercial product was ready for sale. Backed by support from Innovation Norway, Solberg and Røsvik were able to make a start on this process. They made contact both with small, young, but capable and creative design agencies, and with large, solid players with broad experience and a large portfolio.

"Finally the choice was made. We gradually found that we wanted someone who could offer solid experience beyond creating a logo. We chose Scandinavian Design Group, because they could be a perfect partner in the creative processes. They helped us with strategy and design development, in addition to developing a good logo and a graphic identity. They asked us some tough questions about who we are and where we wanted to go. That was very enlightening."

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Important name

The name was important. It had to stand out, be easily recognisable and, above all, be available both in trademark registers and as a domain name. The design agency came up with the name Rom & Tonik®. Solberg thinks it was very good for several reasons. It makes reference to both the product and the company; 'rom', Norwegian for room, refers to architecture, and 'tonik' refers to the English word 'tonic' in the acoustic sense. It plays humorously on the name of the well-known drink gin & tonic, which makes is easy to remember. And it works well in most languages, without having any unfortunate connotations. And the domain name was available.

In addition to funding from Innovation Norway, Ålesund Kunnskapspark (Ålesund Knowledge Park) has provided resources by buying a small stake. Rom & Tonik® has an address in Ålesund and for the time being consists solely of Solberg and Røsvik. They have plans for generic growth, as the product gains a foothold and demand rises. "We will need more people as and when the products need to be further developed and we have to develop new products," says Solberg. This year they are on budget, which means achieving sales of around NOK 3 million. The plan is to increase this threefold in 2016.

The product and rights

Rom & Tonik® obtained trademark and design protection for the firm's name, logo and graphic identity. They have developed three products, amongst which they have obtained design protection for FeltTile, but for the time being not trademark protection. They are also in the process of launching FeltCeiling and FeltRoll, but will not apply for protection for the latter. All three utilise the acoustic properties of coarse Mongolian wool for soundproofing panels for walls and ceilings in buildings. The products also have positive environmental aspects. They are made of 100% natural and recyclable material, the raw material is often a by-product in the production of finer-grade wool for furniture and textiles, and the wool is non-allergenic.

Rom & Tonik® has for now applied for and obtained trademark protection in Norway, but will also apply for this in other markets it will gradually enter.

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