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."
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."