One man's clever plan to expand the pool of bone marrow donors, and the upstart company bringing it to market.
Ten thousand people need bone marrow transplants each year to fight life-threatening diseases, but only half of them get one. “Bone marrow donation is a numbers game, and right now the numbers are not working in our favor,” says Graham Douglas. Ten years ago, Douglas' brother was lucky to beat leukemia after finding a donor match for a bone marrow transplant. Now Douglas wants to make it easier for others by tweaking the odds.
Ponder the stakes: Matches are based on genetics. Siblings have a 25 percent chance of being a match, and odds decline sharply from there based on a variety of factors—including ethnicity, which means minorities have a harder time than whites. This mixed-race girl, for instance, didn’t have one match among the 13 million people signed up in a donor registry. Tech entrepreneur Amit Gupta, who is Indian-American, only found a donor after a very public quest including a monetary prize offered by a friend for the first person to match.
The solution is more donors, but getting more people to go through the screening procedure requires creative thinking. Douglas, who works at ad agency Droga5, came up with a unique answer: Stick a sign-up kit inside a Band-Aid box. When someone you cuts their finger and goes hunting for a Band-Aid, they can just dab some of the blood on a Q-tip-like swab, drop it in an envelope already included in the kit, and put it in the mail to the lab. Just like that, they’re in the registry and might have the opportunity to save a life.
“I wanted to make it as fucking simple as possible to do something good,” he says. “I think a lot of people hear bone marrow donation and they think it’s going to be torture and that’s just not the case.”
He pitched the idea to every adhesive bandage company he could find, but without contacts in the industry, his emails were lost in comment boxes on big company websites. Eventually, one little company wrote him back, a day after he emailed them his idea. “We loved it and did it as soon as we could,” says Richard Fine, founder of Help Remedies. Four months later, the product is on the market, with off-beat advertising by Douglas.
Fine's company is something of an outlier in the over-the-counter medical business. They’re a small startup in a business dominated by big pharma. They’re moving in the opposite direction from everyone else: toward simplicity. Their products are always just one drug for one ailment in one clean recycled package, whereas most OTC products contain multiple drugs—Tylenol PM has two drugs in it, for example. Help’s sleep medicine is sold as “Help: I can’t sleep” and contains just one sleep drug—nothing else. If you also have a headache, you'll have to take another pill.
Their bandages were just bandages; now, when you buy “Help: I cut myself” you get two products for $4: 16 adhesive bandages, plus a bone marrow testing kit.
One key advantage of being a small company in a big business is the ability to roll out a new product without layers of bureaucracy. Fine’s company had to partner with a marrow registry, DKMS, which normally uses cheek swabs. After convincing them to use blood samples instead, the company had to come up with a way to mail bloody cotton swabs. They designed a special envelope that meets post office standards and still fits in the sleek recycled-paper pill packets that are Help Remedies’ hallmark.
“The mild increase in cost [of adding the testing kit], especially in larger volumes, will be more than made up for in increased retail business and consumer interest,” Fine says confidently. For example, he doesn’t do business with Whole Foods—yet—but thinks this innovation will win him space on their shelves.
He wouldn’t say how much each testing kit costs but says the company will make a profit on “Help: I cut myself” starting next week, when the packets roll out in stores (the first run was only online). He hopes he can register enough people to save 10,000 lives.
GOOD asked Johnson & Johnson, the makers of the brand Band-Aid, if they'd consider the idea—just think of the impact at that scale—and received no response.
But others are interested. After just a few days on the market, the Emergency Services Response Department in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called up DKMS to ask if they could include something similar to the Help kits in their emergency vehicles. Most of their calls aren’t sirens-blazing, straight-to-the-hospital dire. They treat lots cuts and scrapes in need of mending, and now they hope to ask those patients, “Hey, want to sign up for the bone marrow registry?”
Photo courtesy of Help Remedies, Video by Graham Douglas