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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 2 years ago

Nipping nausea

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Jacqueline Darna's anti-nausea wristbands have made national headlines. Now the race is on to build buzz that can squash copycat brands.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Executive Summary
Issue. Growth Industry. Health Key. Market aggressively to defend your product's turf.


Jacqueline Darna came up with her business idea during one of the scariest moments of her life. After an emergency C-section and three days of non-stop vomiting, her doctor suggested a medically induced coma.

Darna, an anesthesia clinician, thought there had to be a natural way to ease her discomfort. She called upon her former degrees in chemistry and biomedical physics for an answer, along with her anesthesiology training in Eastern medicine practices of aromatherapy and acupressure. Her first experiment involved a rolled up napkin that she taped so it pressed into her wrist. Then her stepmom brought in a peppermint plant, which she draped around her room and on her acupressure point where the gauze was taped. Every time she put the band on her wrist with the leaves, she stopped getting sick.

Following her return from the hospital and despite her duties as a mom of a newborn, Darna started to frantically look up patents to see if the combination of essential oils and acupressure was already covering any products for sale. After her search turned up empty, she dove right in to filing a provisional patent, which covers “any and all essential oil-infused acupressure,” in January 2014.

Within six months, Darna had gone to production on a plastic band, testing her theory with a chemist running a clinical trial. The peppermint oil in the NoMo Nausea bands feels cool and serves as distraction technology — similar to the sensation of relief people get from using Icy Hot. The band also has a knob, which presses on the acupressure point P6 in the wrist, activating a nerve that sends anti-nausea hormones to the brain.

Fast forward a year and the 30-year-old CEO and medical inventor is leading a small Tampa-based company with five employees and 15 independent sales reps, including a couple in England and three in the Middle East. The company turned a profit within the first 12 months and has experienced 300% growth from last year to date, all without any external funding. It is currently running in the six figures in sales, but Darna hopes to hit seven figures by December.

Within the first 18 months, NoMo Nausea has been sold in 12 countries around the world. It's available on Zulily, Amazon and in a number of independent pharmacies. NoMo Nausea supplies and manages its products in more than 200 stores, but that doesn't count its presence through independent distributors, which brings the count closer to 1,000, Darna estimates.

Big-Box Bump
Within six months, Darna expects the product will appear in big retail pharmacy chains. In February, Darna attended the ECRM home health and durable medical supply show in Dallas. The event featured roundtable discussions where sellers have five to 10 minutes to pitch ideas to big-box retailers. Out of the 60 buyers Darna pitched to, 59 told her they wanted to carry the product.

It's an easy product to sell, Darna says, “because for all the buyers, someone knew someone suffering.” One buyer's wife didn't feel well and tested it out. Another buyer had a headache and tried it. Yet another overindulged the night before at the group outing and felt quick relief.

It's also been an easy sell to local pharmacies “because we bring the customers to the actual stores,” Darna says. The product was endorsed by seven OB/GYNs in Tampa as the first attempt at relief for morning sickness. Darna took that to the pharmacies, letting them know that the doctors were recommending it to patients.

The market potential is impressive as well. Around 80% of pregnant women suffer from morning sickness, and 88% experience nausea during delivery. Outside of pregnant women, Darna is also marketing NoMo Nausea products for other ailments such as stress, coughs and colds, hot flashes, itches and hangovers. Two months ago the company launched a product to relieve headaches and migraines. Currently there are seven clinical trials running on the products, each of which takes more a year to complete.

The company's latest clinical study found NoMo Nausea to be 80% effective in reducing nausea and vomiting, and 50% better than just applying pressure, which is what most motion sickness bands do today.

Competition
Darna views the alternatives to NoMo Nausea as “indirect-direct competitors,” meaning her competition hasn't yet combined both aromatherapy and acupressure together.

The most famous competitor is Sea Bands, a company that produces acupressure wristbands and essential oil sticks to combat nausea. Darna says her product is better because Sea Bands isn't waterproof, is twice as expensive and it “looks like an 1980s ugly sweatband.” But she also feels proud that the recognized brand has taken notice of her product, “paying for marketing to combat against me,” she says.

There are other products — like the Psi Band that was featured on Shark Tank but didn't secure an investment, or the Travel Navigation electric band that delivers jolts of electricity to the P6 joint for $150. This in comparison to the NoMo Nausea temporary bands that retail at $12.99. There are also aroma sticks that can be used up the nose, or common nausea medications like Zofran or Dramamine, which may have other effects on the body, unlike natural remedies, Darna says.

Darna believes her most threatening competition, however, is copycats. “I'm afraid of the billion knockoffs that could come in and kill it and make it less valuable,” she says.

The only way to beat that competition is by “machine gunning it,” Darna says. She's currently working on a deal with CVS, hoping to both feature her brand in the store and sell her patented formula for the store's generic brand.

Tampa Connections
Darna's tenacity on dealmaking stems from her strength for networking. She says she's never been too proud to ask for help. Her product helped University of Tampa President Ronald Vaughn's wife through foot surgery, a move that led to an invite to work out of the university's entrepreneurship center on campus.

The center's director, Rebecca White, says Darna and her company are a perfect fit for the university's incubator program, which offers both faculty and student resources along with free office space to a handful of local businesses. Not only was the product “interesting and promising, but Jackie is very interested in and willing to coach and mentor students,” White says.

Every semester NoMo Nausea has between three to five unpaid interns from University of Tampa and University of South Florida. She challenges interns to come up with business plans to improve the business or address key challenges, and then offers funding to test out the ideas. “People undervalue interns; they see them as a liability,” Darna says. She sees them as an opportunity for fresh ideas. For example, one of her interns asked for $13 for an Amazon marketing campaign and turned it into $1,800 in sales in just four days, Darna boasts.

White says it has paid off for the students as well, with Darna allowing students to participate in meetings and helping them find work after graduation. “She has them engaged in very meaningful work...and she's a great spokesperson,” White says.

Darna takes that spokesperson role seriously, for her community and her company. Although all of the interviews and photo shoots take away from time spent running her business, that doesn't slow Darna down. She frequently contributes to blogs and magazines, and does speaking engagements to doctors on her research. Her company puts a lot of emphasis on social media — from Wellness Wednesdays on Periscope to posting company pictures on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Though the buzz can be distracting, it's all about turning it into revenue.

Without all the buzz, the company wouldn't be where it is today, Darna says. “You are your brand,” she says. “I'm an expert in my space, and I want my customers to trust that I'm that source.”

Dog Dose
NoMo Nausea is also working on a product for dogs, though Darna says she has to credit her 5-year-old son for the idea. She brought him to a board meeting to supplement his education when he asked why she made everyone in the family feel better, except for the dog? It turns out dogs have pressure points, too.

Costly mistake
Darna's biggest mistake was during the company's annual drive in October to donate bands to chemotherapy patients. She was going through her website with the marketing director at her hospital partner Moffitt Cancer Center when the website decided to freeze on the hangover cure page. Moffitt told her they couldn't endorse a product that had anything to do with alcoholism. Darna quickly learned the hard way that she had to remove all hangover references from the packaging, and make it a separate product. Now that her product has been nominated as surgical product of the year, she hopes to spark a new conversation with the hospital.

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