Mar. 31 2011
By ZACK O'MALLEY GREENBURG
Billy Procida, Jeff Chimenti, A.J. Santella show off their unlikely invention.
There may not be three people in the world less likely to invent and launch a groundbreaking medical device than Jeff Chimenti, Billy Procida and A.J. Santella. Chimenti’s day job is playing keyboard alongside former Grateful Dead stars Bob Weir and Phil Lesh for post-Garcia offshoot bands including The Dead and Ratdog. Procida is a real estate developer who befriended Chimenti ten years ago and has since advised both bands on business matters including the recent release of Grateful Deadopoly. Santella is a roadie.
But in 2007, the improbable trio stumbled upon a solution that had been eluding medical professionals for years. Chimenti’s mother had been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a closing of the airways while sleeping. According to the National Institutes of Health, 12 million Americans suffer from some from of sleep apnea. For Chimenti’s mother, the diagnosis meant wearing a mask attached to a ventilation device so that she could receive Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy. Like many patients, she found that the mask dug into her face — so much so that it left deep cuts and prevented her from sleeping — and caused her to consider abandoning the potentially life-saving device so that she could get a good night’s rest.
“All of her more serious issues were put to the side and the focus was, ‘We’ve got to get this nose better,’” recalls Chimenti over lunch with the unlikely troika. “So I was like, ‘Okay, why don’t I step up and do something?’ Finally, they let me into the wound care center, but I didn’t find anything there. I realized we needed something along the lines of a gel or a silicone.”
Chimenti put in a call to Santella, the band’s instrument technician, looking for ideas. He needed something that had some stickiness to it, but something that didn’t have any adhesive on it that would create friction. Within half an hour, Santella had the answer: a gel material used for dampening vibration on drum heads. (“I stuck this thing to my forehead, and it hasn’t gone anywhere in 30 minutes,” he told Chimenti over the phone).
So Chimenti configured the material, which came in strips, to serve as a buffer between his mother’s face and the mask. Or, as Procida puts it: “He came right out of The Dead’s studios, pulled the stuff right off a drum, and stuck it on his mom’s nose.” The makeshift invention immediately started helping Chimenti’s mother, and within a week, her symptoms were gone. The doctors were stunned — and they wanted more of this miracle device.
Chimenti’s mother passed away shortly afterwards, but he took comfort in the fact that his invention had made her last days more peaceful. He and Santella resolved to find a way to make the product available more people. Their first step was to bring in Procida, who quickly connected them with a gel maker and an endorsing doctor. A fourth partner, sleep industry veteran Ron Richard, joined the team soon after. They christened their product the Sleep Comfort Care Pad and set up a bare-bones website for less than $3,000; the product’s video demo featured Chimenti and Santella as actors, filmed by the son of The Dead’s drummer.
“In under a year it want from an idea to an FDA-approved product,” marvels Chimenti. “The aim wasn’t to start a business, it was just to help my mom. But when we saw it was working, we figured we ought to give it a shot.”
Chimenti and Santella started out making the gel pads one by one in their tour bus, but soon wised up and hired a manufacturer and distributor after obtaining a patent. In its first year, the Sleep Comfort Care Pad sold 350,000 units worldwide. The success quickly attracted attention in the medical device sector, including a few opportunistic deal-makers.
“We got a few offers like, ‘You guys aren’t going anywhere with this, why don’t you just give it to us?’” says Procida. “It got so big so fast that the next step was, ‘Holy shit, we’d better do something with this.’”
Fortunately for the trio, their invention had already drawn the attention of ResMed, a publicly-traded medical supplies company that specializes in contraptions built for people with sleep apnea. Procida, Chimenti and Santella tried to sell their invention to ResMed in 2009, to no avail. But the company kept coming back with more and more questions, and a year later they made a seven-figure offer with a per-unit royalty tacked on as well.
For a real estate developer, a keyboardist and a roadie who’d collectively invested about $100,000 in the product, it was an easy yes. The exact numbers weren’t disclosed, but Procida is quick to gesticulate the difference between the group’s original offer to ResMed in 2009 (measured with fingers) and the company’s follow-up offer a year later (measured with arms).
Since making the deal, ResMed has renamed the trio’s invention “Gecko” and the Medicare-reimbursable product retails for $24.95. The company expects to sell 1,000,o00 units this year, says Procida. He and his partners had to sign a non-compete agreement with ResMed, but they’re already plotting their next venture.
“We’re not allowed to compete in the medical field,” say Chimenti. “But we’re working on something in the industrial area.”
Captains of industry, you’re on notice.