Medical device startup pays it forward by providing face shields to frontline staff

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kevin Nelson was busy building his customer base for an innovative wound care dressing he developed for very sensitive and fragile skin. His company, NelDerm, a Bounce incubator company, manufactures these dressings primarily for hospitals and long-term care facilities. While in a meeting with a chain of nursing homes last March, he received word that outside visitors would no longer be allowed in those types of healthcare facilities to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

“I suddenly found myself unable to call on potential customers and demonstrate our product, just as we were marketing the first iteration,” he said.

Instead of looking at this as a set-back, Nelson saw it as an opportunity to play a role in the fight against COVID-19, while protecting those who are working on the frontlines.

“We were one of the first to manufacture and sell U.S.-made, FDA-authorized face shields,” he said. “We sold about 2 million and donated 200,000 to local hospitals and nursing homes.”

This wasn’t the first time Nelson had to pivot from his original plan.

While a senior at Riverside High School in Painesville, he came up with the idea for the wound dressing to compete in a biomedical engineering science fair for a chance at a college scholarship.

“I had a relative with sensitive skin who couldn’t use regular bandages because the adhesive caused an allergic reaction, so I wondered about using a different type of adhesive,” Nelson said. “At the time, I was going through physical therapy for my back and the TENS unit pads I used contained hydrogel, so I tried mocking up a bandage using hydrogel as the adhesive.”

Recognizing that his idea had merit, his parents and grandfather encouraged him to keep it a secret until he could legally protect it, which meant he withdrew from the science competition.

“I didn’t qualify for the scholarship and instead used the money I made helping my brother with his landscaping business to pay an intellectual property attorney,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Nelson went on to attend The University of Akron, earning a bachelor’s degree in corrosion engineering while minoring in business, but NelDerm was something he still pursued in his spare time.

“I purposely scheduled classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays during my final semester, so Monday, Wednesday and Friday were free to work on my business, such as meeting with potential customers and investors. When speaking with young, budding entrepreneurs, I always stress the importance of completing their degrees for various reasons, but most importantly because it proves to yourself and to others that you have the grit it takes to accomplish a multi-year goal,” he said.

“After graduating, I worked in the oil and gas industry for a few months, but I was noticing a real shift from NelDerm being an idea on the side to a potential business,” he said. “It was the financial support and trust from some family and friends that allowed me to take the plunge and pursue NelDerm full-time. Other than marrying my wife, Chloe, the following year, that’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

As NelDerm has grown, Nelson has benefitted from many of the resources available at Bounce Innovation Hub, where he now has office space. He uses the meeting space there for quarterly strategy sessions and eventually, regular board meetings.

“My relationship with Bounce started two and a half years ago when I met Mike Haritakis, Bounce’s healthcare entrepreneur in residence, through a friend,” he said. “Mike has helped with my go-to-market strategy, including defining my customer base and finding potential investors and distribution partners.”

Nelson’s initial investors were family and friends, but now with Haritakis’ guidance, he’s being

more strategic in seeking venture capital. Bill Flickinger, another entrepreneur in residence at Bounce, has shared his more than 30 years of experience in the medical device and consumer health products fields, providing Nelson with strategic, marketing, quality and regulatory guidance.

“It’s important to surround yourself with good advisors. Make sure it’s a good fit and that you’re in sync, so you can build trust and not feel like you have to micromanage,” Nelson said. “Assess where you want to be in 5 years, and be very methodical and mission-driven to get there.”

As Nelson was working with his manufacturing partners to fill a critical need for face shields during the pandemic, he also used the time to re-evaluate his go-to-market strategy, and since last September, has been back in product development mode. The success of the face shields gave him the working capital to reinvest into his core product. He also formed a clinical committee with five doctors and a nurse practitioner to provide constructive feedback regarding his wound dressing, evaluating such factors as whether it’s absorbent enough and how well the edges of the bandage stay in place.

“It’s important to take time to do your research and strategic planning to make sure you stay focused,” he said. “While it might be tempting to pursue other opportunities, they might be counterproductive to your strategic plan. But at the same time, you have to be flexible and recognize that your value proposition might change.”

He also advises other entrepreneurs to not be afraid or too prideful to ask for help.

“Bounce has a tight-knit network that you should use to your advantage,” he said. “As you’re looking forward, don’t forget to look back – to not only assess how well you’re meeting your performance goals, but also to make sure you’re staying true to your mission.”

About the author:
Jill Wodtley, APR, is a freelance writer and owner of Fine Point Public Relations and Advertising. An accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America, she develops and implements marketing communications, public relations and advertising initiatives for a variety of clients, ranging from health care and social service agencies to industrial/manufacturing firms.