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Great Expectations

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It sounds like a bad joke: Two men, an entrepreneur and a chiropractor, chatting about how they could solve women's menstrual cramps with an adjustable belt.

But for millions of women, the cramps, especially a chronic condition called Dysmenorrhea, aren't something to laugh about. And that's just what the entrepreneur, Rob Brady, and the chiropractor, Stephen Lee, realized.

Those chats are now the genesis behind Ziivaa, a unique Sarasota-based startup. The firm's core product is a patent-pending, non-invasive, drug-free device that uses adjustable compression technology to control and eliminate menstrual cramps.

Lee, with a practice in Sarasota, approached Brady, founder of Sarasota-based product design firm Robrady, with the concept in 2007. Lee had used a rudimentary version of the belt with patients since 2003.

“Right away we thought this was a great product,” says Brady. “But to get it to market and have women embrace it, we would have to humanize it.”

Lee and Brady began that process in 2008 with Ziivaa, pronounced “zeeva” — an arbitrary name chosen for marketing and search engine optimization purposes. The goal is to sell the Ziivaa belts, at least initially, in three tiers: online; health care facilities and doctor's offices; and TV. The firm is working with distributors in England, India, the Middle East and Africa, and it also plans to sell the belts through pharmacies in Spain.

A woman can wear the belt a few minutes at a time for relief from cramps and tension, according to the company. Sometimes the relief lasts a day or two, other times it lasts the entire cycle. Says Brady: “This is the perfect solution.”

Brady backs up his confidence with money and personnel. On the funds side, he initially put about $500,000 into the business through RoBrady Capital, a unit of his design firm. Ziivaa has since raised another $1 million from investors in Sarasota and overseas.

On personnel, meanwhile, Brady hired Kristen Nichols, a corporate coach and business consultant, to run operations. He also hired an executive director, Shimi Shah, who works out of England and Dubai. The firm hopes to hire three more executives by early 2012.

Nichols, who previously worked in startup divisions of AT&T and Cisco Systems, says the challenges with Ziivaa are twofold. First, there is the education process, to prove to potential customers the belt delivers its promise. That challenge is acute, says Nichols, because the market has been so devoid of this type of product it breeds skepticism.

“It's not just a new product we are bringing to market,” Nichols says. “It's a new conversation.”

Those conversations will run deep. Nichols says Ziivaa will contact the first 1,000 or so people who buy the belt for an upfront product review. The unusual customer interaction, says Nichols, will help develop future marketing and branding approaches.

Nichols says the second challenge could be to keep up with demand and logistics, especially if the belts hit it big in the early going. The belts are designed in Sarasota and manufactured and packaged in China.

The Ziivaa belt will have widespread global appeal, says Nichols, because it deals with a universal woman's heath issue. The first belts should be shipped by the third week of October. Nichols and Brady decline to project sales for the belts, only to say they have high hopes. Says Brady: “This is one the best things we've ever developed.”



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