If you’ve ever seen BBC’s Dragon’s Den, you’ll know it’s unusual for all five “dragons” – that is multimillionaires – to offer an equal investment to the entrepreneurs pitching to them. But that’s exactly what happened when Antonia Philp and her husband presented their skincare brand.

“I’d been at my shift one minute, then hopped on a train to Manchester, and now here we were with five offers on the table,” says Antonia. “It was nerve-wracking and also so exciting.”

After some negotiation, the pair accepted Vitabiotics CEO Tej Lalvani’s investment offer of £75,000 for a 5% stake in their business, Nursem. But what led them to this point and what did it take to get there?

From cracked skin to creation

It all began in 2008 when not long after qualifying, Antonia was signed off work with sore, bleeding and cracked hands. “I was working in a busy respiratory ward and I remember coming home one day in tears – I felt so cross because my hands hurt so much,” Antonia recalls.

“I thought – it’s not supposed to be like this – I’d only just started my career and yet I was already having to take two weeks off to allow my hands to heal.”

After speaking with occupational health and being given some cream that wasn’t very effective, Antonia realised she wasn’t alone. “More than 87% of health care professionals will suffer from a form of contact dermatitis in their career,” she says.

I felt so cross because my hands hurt so

“As nurses, we’re washing our hands sometimes between 50-100 times a day,” adds Antonia. “I started exploring what hand creams were out there and discovered there weren’t many products specially designed for hard-working hands – not just for health care staff, but also for other hands-on workers such as builders and florists.”

The experience spurred her on to create her own hand cream. Not quite sure where to start, she began writing up a wish-list of what she felt was important. 

“The product needed to be fast absorbing and non-greasy, so you could apply it and then get straight back to work. And, crucially, I wanted it to be as natural and effective as possible,” she adds.

I wanted it to be as natural as possible

As Antonia continued nursing, her husband Jonny – now the CEO of the business – got involved and took over the day-to-day running of the new venture, helping to make progress.

Together they worked with a manufacturer and in 2011 they began trialling their products, seeking trusted feedback from nursing staff. After years of rigorous testing and tweaks, in 2018, their business Nursem was launched via Crowdfunder which helped to fund their first mass production.

Free cream for care workers

Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength and the pair have created a range of skin care products they are proud of. Not least because their business gives a month’s worth of hand cream to a nurse or midwife with every product purchased, via the Nursem Promise.

To date, they’ve helped provide 250,000 NHS staff members with free hand care and their aim is that by the end of 2025 Nursem will provide free hand care to all NHS clinical staff.

Nursem team shot

“Right from the off, we wanted to make sure this wasn’t just about hand cream,” says Antonia. “We wanted to give something back to hard working health care professionals.”

Now a specialist transplant nurse in paediatrics looking after children who have had a heart or lung transplant, Antonia says she enjoys the balance of having nursing and the business in her life.

And despite the success of the business, she has no plans to leave the nursing profession. “I’d always be drawn back,” she adds. “I love looking after my patients and that will never change.”

Antonia says a big motivator for her is the positive messages she gets from health care staff about the difference Nursem has made to their hands. “It makes it all the more rewarding, especially when there have been so many ups and downs in developing the business to this point.

We always had a clear purpose 

“For a long time, we relied as a family on my nursing salary, making no money or very little from the business,” she says. “We had a lot of push backs, with so many people saying ‘no’, but we always had a clear purpose and little by little we’ve got to where we are today. All the work we’ve put in has really started to pay off.”

Find out more about the Nursem Promise.

Are your hands suffering?

Hand hygiene and caring for your hands has never been so important.

Under health and safety law, your employer should have a programme of skin checks in place for nursing staff exposed to the risk of work-related dermatitis. And you should feel confident to raise any concerns you may have about your skin and receive timely feedback.

If you feel your concerns aren’t being listened to, take a look at our raising concerns guidance and speak to your line manager. You can also call RCN Direct for advice on 0345 772 6100.

Check out the RCN’s hand health resources.

Words by Sophie Goode. Main image: Nursem.

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