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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Startup BeneSol hopes to capture Vitamin D fans with new, safer fast-dose kiosks

A Seattle-based start-up guided by a serial entrepreneur and supported by a couple of prominent businessmen with investment-success pedigrees is seeking to capitalize on the growing concern about the health impact of Vitamin D deficiency by producing a sit-down kiosk that would deliver large doses of Vitamin D in a safe manner.

 

The company is BeneSol Inc., which is completing an initial funding round to build and begin putting in place self-service kiosks designed to be a novel approach to address what the company's executive summary characterizes as "a worldwide vitamin D-deficiency epidemic."

 

Rick Hennessey 

BenSol CEO Rick Hennessey is an entrepreneur who has built and successfully exited five companies, including most recently Cequint, a Seattle wireless service provider that he sold to TNS, Inc. for over $100 million in 2010.

 

Hennessey explained that the machines, which will cost about $20,000 each, are not intended to be sold but rather to be placed into clinics and other healthcare facilities and for BeneSol to be paid for their use.

 

His ambitious goal is to put 10,000 of the machines into the marketplace in six years, which he estimates will produce up to $1.5 billion in revenue. His vision is that use of the kiosks, which he says will "take about two minutes and involve no more risk than standing in the sun for 60 seconds," will "become like brushing your teeth."

 

He and BeneSol founder Alex Moffat, whose background is in software development, have attracted a couple of experienced investors in Woody Howse, co-founder of Cable and Howse Ventures, one of Northwest's original venture firms, and Chris Ackerley, a founder of Ackerley Partners.

 

In addition, the latest addition to the company's board is Ralph Pascualy, M.D., CEO of Swedish Medical Services.

 

Although a large majority of people in this sun-starved area are Vitamin D deficient, (Hennessey says estimates are about 80 percent in Canada and about 77 percent in the Northwest), not everyone who might decide to use the kiosks is deficient. So I asked if they are going to suggest users get blood tests to verify deficiency.

 

Hennessey noted that new blood-test machines "are hitting Walgreens and other pharmacies and that will bring blood tests into the consumer space at a very low cost."

 

"We also have developed an algorithm that will predict D level accurately and will incentivize people to take a blood test as part of the process," he added.

 

It was Howse, through a friends and family connection, who met Moffat and began making key introductions and spreading the word about Moffat's personal involvement in working with manufacturers in developing a new light source.

  

Howse noted that the current fund-raising round will allow the company to go through a beta test using the device for treatment of psoriasis, which he described as "the most prevalent immune-deficiency disease in the world."

 

Howse soon went on the board of BeneSol, which was founed in 2009, and became an investor.

 

So BeneSol executives are aware they will be viewed merely as another early technology in a sector where an array of businesses are providing "The Sunshine vitamin" in one form or another in substitute for available sunshine.

 

One competing technology has already basically eliminated itself from the field, tanning devices. A unit of the World Health Organization has added ultraviolet radiation-emitting tanning beds and lamps to the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation.

 

Another competitor, Vitamin D supplements are taken by almost half of older adults. But a little over a year, Fortune Magazine columnist Steve Salzberg zeroed in on Vitamin D supplements in his Fighting Pseudosciencecolumn.

 

He cited two studies that he said "show that most of those people taking Vitamin D supplements are wasting their money."

 

Then there are the UVB light source devices and lamps, including those manufactured by competitors like Philips, which could become an acquirer as BeneSol moves forward, if the startup's growth approximates the investors' hopes.

 

Referring to the light-source competitors, Hennessey said "We have to complete FDA, but our initial testing and the long-established science tells us that we are far safer, require less time and are more effective then their technology."

 

I asked Hennessey about the importance of those using the kiosks maximizing skin exposure, meaning was disrobing an issue that needed to be dealt with.

 

"The more skin exposure the better, but you don't have to get naked," Hennessey replied.

 

"When we run focus groups with women, we ask the question of whether or not they would undress in our unit," he added. "Not a single woman in our focus group had an issue.  They made comments like, 'I change in dressing rooms, and many don't even have locks or often doors.' Our machine is a secure kiosk with door that locks."

 

FDA approval is still on the futures list so that becomes a cautionary note as they explain their expectations.

 

"We anticipate being the first device to go through FDA so that we can claim safe and effective production of vitamin D," he added. "Like most early technologies, there are some alternative options that will compete for the dollar, but, nothing like what we are doing."

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Spokane's 'North Pole' flight for poor kids attracting attention from other cities

The annual Fantasy Flight to the "North Pole" that Alaska Airlines makes possible each year for 60 disadvantaged Spokane-area kids and their personal elves is now attracting the attention of other cities who might like to create similar events, possibly in partnership with Alaska.

 

The children, selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene areas, board Alaska Airlines "flight 1225," designated "Santa One," Saturday at Spokane International Airport.

 

This is the fifth year Alaska has operated the flight in Spokane for Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), a 501c3 created and overseen by Steve Paul, president, CEO and executive director. He's a software executive who spends much of the year preparing for, agonizing over funding for,and carrying off the event, where at trip time he's better known as "Bernie" the Head Elf.

 

Steve's headshot
Steve Paul, event creator as 
head elf "Bernie" 

Alaska made the flight unique when it took over from United Airlines after that airline was unable to make a jetliner available in December of 2008. Though a number of airlines around the country, actually around the world, have been engaged in such Christmas Season flights since even before Alaska got involved, it was Alaska employees who asked: "why can't we take the kids up in the air?"

 

Thus it was that Alaska was the first to actually fly away, taking the kids to "the North Pole."

Brad Tilden
 Brad Tilden, Alaska Air CEO 

United now has North Pole adventures, for children with serious illnesses, that take to the air from both Los Angeles and San Francisco for flights around California that land back at the airport from which they departed. Other airlines doing "flights" that mostly involve taxiing around the airport with window shades down are Continental, American and Southwest.

 

Elsewhere in the world, kids are carried aloft by British Airways in Scotland and Aerolineas Argentinas, which conducts fantasy flights between Buenos Aires' two main airports.

 

Recognition for the Spokane event got broader last year thanks to coverage by Seattle's KCPQ-TV, which actually also did a program on it for CNN as well as its own regular news coverage. That greater visibility is providing both relief and opportunity for Paul.

 

"This is the first that I am not panicking about funding as the event nears," he said in an interview. He's attracted a number of local sponsors at various levels and has a cash-and-in-kind budget this year of just under $200,000.

kids in plane
Kids awaiting takeoff for 'North Pole'

The key in-kind, of course, is Alaska's participation, a role that has been low key from the outset in 2008.

 

"Alaska has never pressed for any visibility," Paul noted. "They are just happy to be great philanthropists for this project, though many of Alaska's employees consider this a high point of their year." As many as 30 Alaska and Horizon Air employees will participate this year, though more sought to volunteer.

 

"Alaska wants to do things for the right reasons and visibility is typically not high on the list of right reasons," says Alaska's new chairman and CEO, Brad Tilden. "But it's not that we need to be secretive about something we're very proud of supporting the event and many others who are involved, including many of our employees."

 

And as a new CEO, he brings his own sense of expanding upon this event by being open to seeing something similar develop in other Alaska cities.

 

"We'd be happy to help in other cities," Tilden told me in an email exchange. "I think Steve and his team put in an unbelievable amount of work to bring this event alive, and we'd have to make sure we have a group in another city that is onboard with all of this."

 

"But again, I'm very open to the idea," he added.

 

"Seattle would like to have a similar Fantasy Flight for kids but the challenge is how to scale it," Paul notes. "They'd need a facility, sponsors and community support behind the idea."

 

"We could easily do a Seattle one, bringing kids from there to Spokane to have the same experience our kids do, then fly back home.," he adds.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Among the Alaska-served cities where such Fantasy Flights don't yet occur, in addition to Seattle and Portland, are San Diego, Orange County and the Palm Springs area.

 

The Spokane flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said. "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," Paul explained to me in an interview for a column on him I did a year ago.  

 

"We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

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