MassChallenge grad Gentoo tackles the much-neglected medical supplies market

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We tend to believe that we live in a consumer-driven economy, and we tend to think that that’s a good thing: A plurality of products gives people the freedom to choose what suits them best, and everyone wins. But the medical supplies market is a surprising exception to that rule. Most of the time, patients do not get to pick from among a supermarket-style assortment of crutches. They get the same crutches as everyone else, and if they don’t like them, then tough.

“For years, it’s always been just, ‘Well, this is what it is, sorry,’” said Ben Nadeau, co-founder of Gentoo. “And then people are like, ‘Okay, well, that sucks, but it’s better than dying or not being able to walk.’”

But recent years have seen a rising counter-trend: Increasingly, patients are turning to online retailers like bestpricemedicalsupplies.com “to get something that’s not just generic off the shelf from a hospital.” And Gentoo, which launched in the fall of 2012 at Wentworth’s Accelerate entrepreneurship program and then took part in MassChallenge, is getting in on the ground floor of an emerging market.

The product, which will debut commercially in the coming weeks, could hardly be simpler or lower-tech: It’s a vest that holds the equipment for infusion treatments like chemotherapy. It protects the pump, keeps the tubes from getting tangled, and generally makes life easier for patients.

The current standard solution for ambulatory infusion treatments is “kind of like a fanny pack,” Nadeau said. “You don’t have to carry it, but you have to have it on your body in some way, and it’s just very awkward.”

And how did this become the standard? “They needed something to help people carry around infusion bags,” Nadeau explained. “So they made this little fanny pack thing. It works… and they’re making they’re money off of it. There’s nobody really competing in the field, so why would they want to develop something better?”

But the demand for a better solution was clear. Some of the nurses that Nadeau and his associates spoke with even said that “patients were making their own similar devices, like people would buy fishing vests to hold all the stuff that they were using.”

Gentoo plans to enter the market by selling directly to patients. Nadeau’s hope is that, by building a brand in the patient community, the company will eventually be able to sell to hospitals, and hopefully “make (Gentoo) the standard of treatment.”

Interestingly, Nadeau attributes the rising shift away from that model to social media, especially patient-focused networks like PatientsLikeMe, that allow patients to communicate with one another and share their grievances. “Patients are (now) more… engaged in it and want to find better solutions instead of just accepting what they have,” he said.

Nick Cox is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville.
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