Started as a medical device, PenBlade now finds itself expanding into retail.
Let me be very clear: I’ve performed zero surgeries in my life.
When I think about performing surgery, however, all I can imagine is pressure. Mountains of it. Rivers of it. Enough pressure to crush any man or woman if they aren’t concentrating on what they’re doing.
So, in a pressure-packed situation, it’s vital to eliminate any small details that might distract a surgeon from doing their job. This can go in a million different directions, but for the sake of today’s story I will concentrate on one issue and one issue alone: scalpel safety.
Prior to speaking with Dr. Branden Rosenhan, founder of PenBlade, I never gave much thought to scalpel safety. Of all the issues that could go wrong during surgery, this seemed far down the list. And that’s the point. Scalpel injuries and contamination shouldn’t be at the forefront of a surgeon’s mind when slicing someone open, yet scalpel mishaps have always happened.
In 2011 while completing his medical training, Rosenhan began working on an idea for a better safety scalpel. A study was circulating at the time noting a gap between the decline of scalpel and needle injuries — legislation had been passed to limit both, but only needle injuries had declined while scalpel injuries stayed the same.
“I wanted a scalpel that worked like a pen so it was intuitive to everybody, that worked with the same muscle memory,” said Rosenhan. “If I’m cutting a patient for a procedure, I’m laser focused on what I’m doing to that patient. The minute I cut them, I’m addressing bleeding and other issues that are going on, thinking about the procedure as it progresses….We wanted something that works like a pen, I can do it left-handed or right-handed or behind by back. So we came up with PenBlade, designed to work just like a pen.”
Leading brands in the scalpel world have always worked in slightly different ways — some have a thumb-down safety, others have thumb-up, some were created so the physician is holding the safety feature as they cut.
As you can tell, this isn’t great. PenBlade was created to solve this problem — everyone knows how to use a pen, so why not design a scalpel to mimic something familiar? Convinced the idea was a good one, Rosenhan entered and won the Grow America competition in 2012, using the money to build a prototype. By the end of 2013, PenBlade had closed a $1.15 million seed round from Kickstart Seed Fund, Park City Angels, and various physicians.
The time for product launch had come.
“We came out with the product, a soft launch in 2014, and no one wanted to buy it,” said Rosenhan. “So we had to go back and think about what we weren’t doing, what were the boxes we hadn’t checked with medical devices? One we hadn’t checked was something called group purchasing organization contracts, or GPOs. Hospitals do consolidated buying and they contract through these third parties. So at St. Mark’s hospital, where I work, they don’t want to have to negotiate the price of every product so they have a third party do it.”
Things started to turn around in 2015 as PenBlade began securing GPO contracts, but another problem quickly took its place. Quality control identified a sterile package issue and PenBlade issued a voluntary recall that nearly put them out of business. No one was injured by the mishap, but PenBlade as a company was on life support. A timely infusion of capital from the Park City Angels helped keep them afloat into 2016.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — we shored up the manufacturing, realized the challenges, and doubled down on how secure our packaging is,” said Rosenhan.
At last, revenue. 2016 marked the first solid returns for PenBlade, boosted by more GPO contracts and love from an unlikely source, the Craft & Hobby Association.
That’s right, PenBlade was recognized and awarded at the Craft & Hobby Association megashow in two different areas: best cake decorating device and best floral device. This expanded PenBlade’s reach and took them into a bunch of areas Rosenhan never imagined, sold in places like Hobby Lobby and the Home Shopping Network, used in a variety of fields like fishing, leatherworking, paper crafting, cake decorating, and floral sculpting. Customers have gone crazy buying PenBlade on Amazon and by the end of 2016, over half their revenue was coming from retail purchases.
Rosenhan continues to split his time between full-time physician care and PenBlade. He’s begun building out his team while looking to pull together a Series A round. Whether you’re looking for a safety scalpel or a cake decorating device, PenBlade hopes to have you covered.
“We have two missions at PenBlade,” said Rosenhan. “One, to become the number one safety scalpel in the world. Two, grow and provide a great return for our investors….My vision is PenBlade being available to all clinical providers, so we don’t have people getting injured with contaminated scalpels.”