Any Way You Slice It: Marketing an innovative product to two distinct industries
What happens when you cross a surgical scalpel with click pen? You get one of the most innovative products in the medical and hobbyist industries available today.
Created by Dr. Branden Rosenhan, a critical care physician and medical director at St. Mark’s Hospital, the PenBlade was originally designed to decrease the number of scalpel injuries in operating rooms around the world. With these injuries exposing surgeons, nurses and patients to blood borne diseases, Rosenhan thought there had to be a better way. “I felt the scalpel should be simple and intuitive.”
He was right.
Rosenhan’s idea was to fashion a surgical scalpel with a retractable blade that was controlled like a click pen. Because the action would utilize existing muscle memory, the scalpel could be used without the surgeon having to reposition his hand or look away from the patient.
The PenBlade’s design was so revolutionary, Rosenhan won funding for the project in the 2012 Grow America contest, a competition that encourages entrepreneurs by providing awareness and funding for their ideas. With his winnings, he founded PenBlade, Inc., in September 2013, got additional backing from the Park City Angel Network and the Kickstart Seed Program, and was well on his way to overhauling scalpel safety.
But then something unexpected happened.
People began using the scalpels as craft knives. The retractable blade could cut through all types of materials including paper, yarn, leather and even fondant for cake decorating. PenBlade started getting notice for its appeal to crafters, florists and hobbyists as a safe and inexpensive tool for all kinds of applications.
“Our goal was to be the number one safety scalpel in the world and to lower the cost of healthcare by building better, safer and cheaper products to improve outcomes,” Rosenhan says. “But we started getting a lot of feedback that the blade shouldn’t just be available for surgeons.”
Plans immediately got underway to get PenBlade into the right hands to market to a broader audience. Rosenhan entered the National Craft & Hobby Association’s MEGA conference in Anaheim in January 2016, where PenBlade took home an unprecedented two Hot Product Awards: the Best Floral Craft Tool and the Best New Cake and Food Decorating Tool.
With popularity and demand reaching an all-time high, not only did Rosenhan have to find distributors for the medical aspect of his product, he also had to create packaging and distribution for the craft side of the knife.
Gathering a team
For a physician with no previous experience in medical or crafting device creation, Rosenhan says a lot of his business strategy is a “learn as you go” process.
He sought out medical supply companies in the state to get some wisdom and advice as he navigated his way through the distribution and production process. He also organized a strong board of directors. But his entrepreneurial naiveté and optimism really carried him through obstacles that, at times, seemed daunting.
“It’s about listening to your gut and vision as an entrepreneur. But if I could go back and change things, I would have mentally and emotionally prepared myself and my family for the time and money it’s taken to get here.”
Another thing he’s learned is that if you want things done, hire women. “The early team had no female input, but two years ago I added talented, smart and ambitious women. I should have hired women earlier because they’ve been a huge boost to our company.”
He acknowledges Director of Operations Stephanie Hess’s willingness to continue knocking on doors with the product’s success in the crafting industry. And he credits Nikki Rasmussen’s exemplary sales and consultant abilities to create energy needed for growth.
On the cutting edge
Today, PenBlade is shipped internationally to stores in New Zealand and Australia, plus Rosenhan picked up a distributor to market the product in Europe. An exclusive partnership with medical device supplier Unisurge will get the surgical scalpel into the UK, and Stanford Medical Center recently announced it will switch over to PenBlade to increase safety.
On top of that, an association with big craft chains like Michaels Craft Stores and Hobby Lobby has the multi-use knife quickly rising to the top of hobbyist’s must-have lists. Millions of units have been sold, and that’s just the beginning.
“[This year] has been an exciting year of growth for the company. We expect 500 percent growth in 2016 and at least 400 percent next year. We’re estimating that by 2017, the company will see between $2 – 3 million in revenue.”
Patience is also a virtue Rosenhan has embraced, especially while slicing through the red tape and regulations necessary to get PenBlade into operating rooms. “There’s a slow adoption and slow value analysis for medical devices. It takes six to nine months per hospital to get PenBlade in the hands of surgeons.”
The company’s team and partners work diligently to accomplish Rosenhan’s mission to guarantee PenBlade becomes the world’s leading safety scalpel and safest crafting knife.
People continue to find new uses for PenBlade. Everyone from doctors to scrap bookers to wedding cake designers have created a demand for the versatile cutting tool. Rosenhan is still amazed by the success of his product and its variety of uses.
“The craft and hobby side of the business is super interesting to me. It’s going to be an exciting year. I’m just holding on tight and hoping I don’t screw it up.”