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at least a healthy slice of the market for diabetic socks, which has doubled from $50 million in 2005 to $100 million in 2008.
This renewed enthusiasm comes after some hard knocks. Johnston previously bought a shipment of 20,000 pairs of socks in 2001 with the same glimmer in his eye. He couldn’t sell them.
It must be noted that this isn’t the sort of thing that Johnston can make any sort of medical claims about. Evidence to suggest they can help heal infected sores is anecdotal. Friends who used some of his early shipments of socks told him they were odor-free. People who wore the socks have also said it gets rid of their athlete’s foot.
While the company is in no position to make any FDA-approved claims, it does support research at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, Johnston says. That’s where Yuyu Sun, a polymer chemist, formerly at UC Davis, has furthered his work in making antimicrobial finishes more practical for industrial use. Johnston got to know him in the mid-’90s when he was at Halosource, and Sun was a scientific advisor to the company.
Sun and Johnston have ambitions that stretch far beyond socks. One of those ideas is for incorporating new antimicrobial chemical finishes into paints and caulks—the kind of material that faces a lot of microbes in kitchens and bathrooms. Another new frontier is with non-woven disposable materials that might be more appealing if they could stay bug-free—like facemasks, or patient gowns.
Still, the startup is really in its early days. I asked Halosource CEO John Kaestle what he thought of the concept, and he said he wasn’t very familiar with it. But he added, “All I can tell you is that commercializing technology is hard with a number of significant hurdles—regulatory, process chemistry, applications partners, supply chains, and go-to-market partners.”
Johnston says he knows the hurdles from his experience at Halosource. That’s why he’s fixed on the diabetic sock strategy, in hopes of slowly and steadily building a business from there.
“We don’t want to depend on a third party to make this work from the start,” he says. “Let’s hit some singles, sell some socks. In the beginning, that’s our sale. But we have a good chance to build a brand and do something special.”