Exploring the tangle between Danish startup Airofit and Guinness World Record holder Stig Severinsen
What happens when you cross a world record-winning athlete with a popular platform and a massive social media following? A small Danish start-up is about to find out.
A dull corporate battle could soon become a viral sensation, as a spat between former business partners is playing out online, and in the courts in Denmark. A run-of-the-mill case about a breach of contract is playing out like the latest tech start-up drama, with court documents revealing allegations of retaining a celebrity sporting influencer to raise awareness – and company valuation – alongside accusations of inappropriate social media posts and unanswered text messages. There are even legal records posted on a public website, next to the requisite lawyer demands to take it all down. If that weren’t enough, there are dueling arguments about incendiary coronavirus claims posted on social media.
It’s all getting a bit messy. And things are just getting started.
In one corner is celebrity breath-holder Stig Severinsen, a freediving champion and multiple Guinness World record-holder. Opposite him: Danish start-up Airofit, a smart breathing training app aimed at athletes as well as casual consumers led by CEO Christian Tullberg Poulsen and with a board of directors filled by leading Danish executives of global brands including ECCO, Nilfisk and Pandora.
Severinsen, who has trained to hold his breath since childhood, was tapped in late 2019 to bring his breathwork expertise to Airofit. Severinsen, who holds a PhD in medicine, is also the founder of Breatheology, which teaches people to learn the techniques and benefits of holding one’s breath for extended times to improve health.
A renowned breathing celebrity links up with a fledgling breathing app. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything, according to court filings by Severinsen’s team.
The story starts innocently enough. A new start-up needs a push to gain consumer awareness, so they tap a celebrity in their field. Airofit approached Severinsen in late 2019, and he began to work with them in earnest in early 2020.
According to emails from that winter and spring, Airofit board members supported Severinsen’s request for a 2.5% ownership stake in the company as part of compensation. In early 2020, Severinsen updated his e-book, featuring Airofit’s breathing device, produced online videos and participated in promotional events for the product.
Severinsen’s moves were met with positive communications from the Airofit board members. “We can very clearly see the value that Stig and Breatheology create, and have given each other a handshake that Jens will stand up in front of both the Board of Directors and the shareholders, and speak urgently for this to happen,” Airofits Director Christian Tullberg Poulsen wrote in a March 2020 note to Breatheology Jacob Helleberg Mathiesen, COO.
An April 2020 letter outlines Airofit’s intention to award the world-class diver 2.5% of shares, contingent on promotional duties as well as “significant sales results.” Indeed, Google search records show a clear uptick in search volume, beginning in early 2020, when Severinsen was brought on, to the present day.
By June 2020 however, according to transcripts of increasingly irate text messages, the start-up mostly goes silent. Board members such as Jens Ørnbo cite the coronavirus as the culprit for the slowdown in communications, as well as the lateness for a board meeting to ratify Severinsen’s shares. Nearly six months later, in November 2020, Airofit’s board meets and unanimously approves Severinsen’s 2.5% shares.
This should be the end of the story. But no. As in any good court drama, there’s a twist.
The amicable collaboration is shattered just as it becomes binding, and the timing of the fallout is suspect, according to Severinsen’s team. On Nov 20, 2020, Airofit finally ratified Severinsen’s shares. A few weeks earlier, on Nov. 2 and Nov. 11, Severinsen posted on his private Facebook account, criticizing the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In one post, Severinsen made inflammatory comments about Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
This apparently is too much for Airofit.
In February 2021, Airofit’s lawyer sent Severinsen a stern note. The Feb. 15 letter goes on to express ‘disappointment’ that the company was not mentioned during Stig’s most recent World Record attempt, adding that the behaviour on his social media crossed a line. “Such controversial statements are not in line with Airofit’s values,” the letter states.
The social media comments, which only a few people saw, were so damaging, in Airofit’s view, that they were forced to end the collaboration, reneging on the promised shares. Disappointed, while the team might have been, surely cannot be legal grounds for dismissing a binding contract.
While not particularly subtle, the comment was in a private Facebook profile, Severinsen’s camp noted, and he is entitled to express his opinion as a private citizen.
Airofit isn’t without its own eyebrow-raising COVID comments, however.
In February 2021, Airofit published a series of Facebook ads, claiming that “recent studies have shown that respiratory muscle training is a most relevant method, to resist the severe consequences of a COVID 19 infection.” Severinsen’s camp has posted screenshots of customer testimonials on Airofit’s site that in his expert opinion are false claims.
As late as March 2021, months after the commentary, which presumably so hurt the company that they had to sever their contract, Airofit still used Severinsen’s image and leaned on his expertise in company Facebook ads that were seen over 378,000 times, according to legal exhibits.
The relationship was fully frayed by April 15, 2021, when Severinsen’s legal team submitted a legal claim to the Danish Consumers Ombudsman in April, alleging no less than four claims against Airofit, including the COVID ads on Facebook.
But it’s one of the other claims that could attract the ire of the Naval Special Warfare Command, with allegations that Airofit featured a former Navy SEAL to promote their product, who Severinsen’s legal team claim was never a Navy SEAL at all.
On the same day, Severinsen’s legal team submitted the claim to the Danish Consumers Ombudsman, the team launched legal proceedings against Airofit alleging breach of contract, along with a potentially far more significant claim – substantial misuse of intellectual property.
All of this cannot be a great look for the Danish Vaekstfonden, the Danish business financing unit supporting Airofit, and the EU Executive Agency for SMEs which has provided Airofit with grant funding.
To cap it off, Severinsen published the entirety of the dispute online, under captions such as “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
Severinsen vs. Airofit is just the latest in a long line of corporate intellectual property battles that have the potential to jump from court records into the public discourse.
Mattel’s fight against MGA Entertainment, maker of Bratz dolls, was tied up in courts for years over allegations of stealing trade secrets. Mattel prevailed in 2008 with a $100 million award, MGA swatted back with another lawsuit, settled this April, that found that Mattel stole secrets.
Tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill, Mike Tyson’s artist, sued Warner Bros. for using his tribal facial tattoo without permission in the movie “The Hangover Part II.” After the courts ruled that Whitmill had a case, the film studio and the artist reached an undisclosed monetary settlement.
Lastly, Adidas was embroiled in a long court battle in the 1990s with discount shoemaker Payless, who was selling sneakers with stripes that mimicked Adidas’ famous logo. After a seven-year-long trial during which nearly 700 Payless sneakers were reviewed, the jury awarded Adidas $305 million.
What’s next? As the Severinsen vs. Airofit case works itself out in the Danish courts, what’s clear is that Severinsen isn’t backing down.
It’s almost as if taking on someone who holds their breath for a living is a bad idea.