No pain means gain for Portland device maker

Genteel targets broader market for device that draws blood without pain.

Elizabeth Hayes, Portland Business Journal
Nov 23, 2016

After Angela McMaster’s six-year-old son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she started waking him up twice during the night to check his blood sugar. That meant pricking his finger with a needle — not a pleasant experience at any hour.

Five years later, McMaster is still checking on Jackson in the wee hours, but he never knows it. Through a Facebook forum, she discovered a device that draws blood painlessly and happened to have been invented locally, by Christopher Jacobs of West Linn.

“Instead of a half-hour ordeal in the middle of the night, it’s five minutes,” McMaster said. “It’s been a game changer for us.”

Last May, a decade after he invented the Genteel lancing device, Jacobs obtained FDA clearance. Now he’s making a push to get it to as many of the half billion people globally who suffer from diabetes as possible. He is trying to expand beyond and the company’s own website to get the $129 device into drug stores. He is also applying for a Small Business Innovation Research grant for a study and to develop a less-expensive version.

Finally, Jacobs is looking for a board of advisers and a partner to invest in the business and take it to the next level.

“We want to take this from ‘Gosh, this is a wonderful thing that doesn’t hurt’ to a real business,” he said.

Painless pricks

Jacobs has a PhD in biomedical engineering, but his professional background is in automotive design. He founded Jacobs Electrical Parts in Midland, Texas, and patented several automotive ignition systems. After another company bought him out, he retired and moved to the Portland area.

Meanwhile, his friend George Ablah approached him about a problem. Ablah was a severe Type 2 diabetic, one of the 29 million Americans living with some form of the disease. Among other inconveniences and worries, they have to check their blood sugar several times a day. This usually requires a poke to the finger tip, where the blood sits close to the surface — as do nerves.

“He said, ‘Look at my fingers. I can’t touch or feel. Can’t you develop something, so I can test from elsewhere?’” Jacobs recalled.

He got to work. Jacobs concluded that it was imperative to control the depth of the lance to the point where it would just reach the blood capillaries — but not so deep to touch the pain nerves. His design features a piston that goes in and grabs the lance and lets it go. As the piston rises, a vacuum lifts out the blood. The result is a much more precise lancing mechanism, with no guesswork required.

Genteel is the only standalone lancing device in the world cleared not only for fingers but other parts of the body, Jacobs said. One inch above the knee is a good place, as there are few pain nerves and a rich blood supply. The palms are another good spot.

“The biggest drawbacks to testing are the pain and the fear,” said Anita Matthews, who handles customer service for Genteel. “With diabetes, there can be no symptoms. The consequences can be years and years ahead. If you live with pain and fear, it’s easy to say, ‘I feel fine.’ Down the road, you might lose your vision and have limbs amputated. If (the needle) doesn’t hurt, there are no more barriers to testing.”

Ablah loved Genteel so much that he urged Jacobs to commercialize the idea, while he initially handled the business development. Jacobs bootstrapped the company, with about $1 million in startup costs. Genteel’s main office remains in Midland, but all the components of the kit are made in Oregon, except for the pouch. There is only one full-time employee, the CFO in Midland. Seven others who are currently working as consultants and contractors out of Jacobs’ West Linn home will soon be brought on full time, he said.

The kit includes the lancing device with nozzle and contact tips, but not a meter or test strips. Stickers are included for kids — or adults — to personalize their device. Genteel sells between 400 and 1,000 units, between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of product, per month.

Jacobs said the company isn’t yet making money because it’s still recouping its startup costs, half of which went toward getting FDA clearance. He anticipates turning a profit by the end of the year and paying off the original investment by the end of 2017.

The device is a one-time purchase, though it requires separate periodic purchases of generic, square-shaft lances, which can be bought in bulk. Matthews said several major pharmacy chains are interested in possibly carrying the device, which could also be used for other conditions that require blood draws, such as high cholesterol or STDs.

The more testing, the better

For those with diabetes, the more glucose testing, the better they can dose themselves with insulin and the less apt they are to reflexively reach for a sweet. Frequent testing also leads to more drops in “A1C,” which is an indicator of blood sugar over the previous three months. Studies have found the cost savings for a person with diabetes per point dropped in AIC is $2,800 to $3,800 per year, Jacobs said.

“For those patients where there’s a lot of anxiety around pain or perceived pain, anything that reduces that is a bonus in terms of diabetes self-care and management,” said Dr. Farahnaz Joarder, an assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition at the OHSU School of Medicine who hasn’t tried the Genteel device.

Genteel recently sent a four-question survey to 1,500 of its customers, finding that 93 percent said the device made a significant difference in their pain levels and that they were testing more often. They were able to lower their “A1C” levels by a full point, but Jacobs hopes to obtain a grant to fund a study that would independently confirm the data.

McMaster, who is an RN but now works for Genteel as a clinical specialist, said the device has certainly made a big difference for Jackson.

“There’s a lot of mental weariness that comes with dealing with a chronic disease,” she said. “It’s disruptive to his life, his education and us. There’s sleep deprivation and exhaustion.”

At first, Jackson couldn’t put it down because he couldn’t believe he could use it anywhere and it wouldn’t hurt.

“A lot of times, he won’t even wake up now,” McMasters said. “It has changed his relationship with checking his blood sugar. That is a huge thing, not just when he’s asleep, but when he’s awake.”

The company: Genteel
What: Makes a 100 percent pain-free blood draw instrument
Locations: West Linn and Midland, Texas
Owner and CEO: Christopher Jacobs
Employees: One full-time, but soon to be seven
Revenue:$50,000 to $100,000 a month
Patents: 6 U.S., 22 international

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