CHICAGO (Reuters) - For Jeff Chimenti, a rock keyboardist who plays with offshoots of the Grateful Dead, it has been anything but a “long strange trip” getting his medical product to market.
Chimenti’s resume includes stints with Furthur -- the band founded by former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh -- as well as Weir’s band, RatDog, and the Dead -- the band that evolved from the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
The musician never planned to invent a device to help people suffering from sleep apnea, but stranger things have happened in the world of rock ‘n roll.
When Chimenti’s mother faced a medical setback a few years ago, he did not stand by idly like a blissed-out Deadhead in the front row of a concert.
Instead, he plunged in with bare-bones ingenuity and relentless drive to tackle the problem. It paid off.
Less than two years later, the solution he and two friends developed to prevent abrasions from a breathing mask used to treat his mother’s sleep apnea morphed into a full-scale commercial venture. Their product, originally dubbed the Sleep Comfort Care Pad, has helped thousands treated for the condition, which is characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing.
It was 2007, and Chimenti’s mother, who had been hospitalized, was suffering from severe facial cuts and bruises caused by the mask attached to the ventilation machine used to pump air into her breathing passages. Her doctors tried every available solution but nothing seemed to work, so Chimenti set out to create a fix.
“I just took it upon myself to say, ‘Let me see what I can help out with,'” he said. “Basically I just started trying anything over the counter, Band-Aids to whatever different kinds of padding.”
He then turned to a proven go-to guy, A.J. Santella, the band’s high-tech roadie and his close personal friend. Within hours, Santella had fashioned a makeshift solution from an unlikely source in the studio: a tacky gel used to dampen the vibration on drumheads. The nonabrasive goo was placed between Chimenti’s mother’s mask and her skin. The quick fix wowed the medical staff at the hospital, who encouraged Chimenti to market the product.
He agreed. According to the National Institutes of Health, millions of American adults have obstructive sleep apnea, with one in 10 people over the age of 65 affected by the condition.
Knowing little about entrepreneurship and even less about how to bring a grassroots invention to the commercial market, Chimenti relied on another friend, New Jersey real estate developer and lifelong Deadhead Billy Procida. Procida had a seemingly endless Rolodex.
“One phone call,” said Procida, recalling his connection to a former high school buddy in the medical products business, who helped put the team in touch with a manufacturer of medical grade, FDA-approved gel.
Once the wheels were spinning, there was no turning back. Procida worked his network, creating opportunities when necessary. At the first trade show he attended, he crashed someone’s unattended booth to promote the new product. He did whatever it took, even volunteering the musicians to provide entertainment.
“The number of doctor Deadheads we encountered and the number of people who helped us is extraordinary,” said Procida, who takes pride in his own moxie.
Chimenti and Santella, whose venture was originally dubbed Chi-San -- a combination of their names -- even created a low-budget video to promote the pads, with Chimenti acting as patient and Santella wearing a borrowed lab coat to play the role of physician.
All the while, RatDog continued touring with a full concert schedule. Chimenti and Santella managed to keep momentum for the medical business going, hosting regular conference calls on the road and using their downtime wisely.
“I think our naivete helped,” said Santella, who sometimes fashioned retooled versions of the pads in the van between sets. “We didn’t try to go down regular avenues. We asked questions of people that maybe we shouldn’t have approached. There were no fences, no walls.”
The team -- whose project was fueled by more than $100,000 of Chimenti’s own money -- also brought on a fourth player, Ron Richard, a medical products executive whose company, SeQual Technologies, took the pads into distribution.
Richard, whose firm specializes in breathing equipment, knew the ins and outs of the sleep products industry, and he helped with everything from packaging to advertising.
“When I first looked at it, I thought, ‘This is so simple, why didn’t I come up with it?'” said Richard, who became an owner in the company. “There are products that are as competitive ... but not as simple or as good.”
Realizing they needed a bigger fish to manage the product’s continued growth, the founders began courting would-be partners, eventually finding a suitable exit with ResMed, a developer of sleep disorder breathing equipment. They are reluctant to provide a dollar amount, but Procida concedes San Diego-based ResMed purchased the technology in December 2010 for an amount pegged “in the seven figures.”
The product, known today as the Gecko nasal pad, is now sold globally for about $25.
Chimenti invested his proceeds with Procida’s private equity fund, a venture focused on turning around distressed real estate assets.
“His stuff has done quite well in the tough economy,” Chimenti said.
Money aside, he said the best part was creating a legacy to honor the memory of his mother, who died from a long illness.
“Throughout it just seemed like the stars were lining up,” he said, adding: “It was a homespun thing that fit a need and we were really proud of it. It was really in tribute to my mom.”
The author is a Reuters contributor