OCTOBER 30, 2007
VOLUME 4 NO. 18

PHYSICIAN LIFE

Emerg docs go bananas over fruit trauma

MD inventors hope reality show investors
are ripe for the picking


"As emergency room doctors we see trauma on a daily basis. The thing is, it's completely preventable. What we're talking about is... the traumatized banana."

So begins the sales pitch of three Vancouver emerg docs on the CBC reality show Dragon's Den earlier this fall. David Agulnik, Amin Sajan and Sunil Mangal, business partners and workmates at St Paul's Hospital, were intent on convincing the cutthroat venture capitalist 'dragons' on the show to invest in their product, the Banana Guard, a simple invention that Dr Agulnik began working on several years ago in his spare time. The next generation of life-saving stents it is not, but the hard plastic case designed to shield bananas from the trauma they often suffer in the lead-up to snack time has serious market appeal. Sales of the Banana Guard are now hovering near the million unit mark.

"We are fortunate enough to have a product that looks like a penis," quips Dr Agulnik with unconcealed adolescent glee.

Unfortunately their time in the Dragon's Den wasn't quite so carefree. Though the double entendres did come hard and fast ("the Banana Guard does not prevent premature ripening," dead-panned Dr Sajan as 'dragon' Arlene Dickinson caressed the rigid plastic sheath), their confrontation with the five jaded capitalists intent on poking holes in their business plan landed them all in recovery. "It was mind-numbingly intense," says Dr Sajan.


The Banana Boys: (from left to right) Amin Sajan, David Agulnik and Sunil Mangal on CBC's Dragon's Den
Image courtesy CBC

BANANA HISTORY
Fed up with the modest pleasure of snack breaks at St Paul's being ruined by bruised and smashed fruits at the bottom of his gym bag, Dr Agulnik decided to do something about it. After a few failed attempts, he finally developed a mould with a fibreglass compound normally used to repair car bodies.

The prototype was the easiest step for Dr Agulnik who admits he doesn't have an entrepreneurial bone in his body. "I had no idea what to do next, I had no idea where to go. How do you find somebody to make something for you? So, I was listening to the radio and I heard this ad: 'If you have an idea, call this number now' and that's what I did."

Next Dr Agulnik drafted in his work buddy Dr Sajan to help cover the cost of the business planning and patent application process. "I was the closest fool with some money," jokes Dr Sajan, who admits he doesn't even like bananas.

The pair concentrated on their day jobs for the next two and a half years until the patent was approved in late 2003. Enter Dr Mangal with another ED-earned cash injection. Soon the trio began turning out their Banana Guards in earnest.

Surprisingly, given that ribbing one's colleagues is an Olympic sport at most hospitals, the docs' St Paul workmates haven't given them too hard a time about their fruit-saving sideline. "Everyone's been really supportive." says Dr Sajan.

Not so the world of business. The banana protection racket has roughed them up a few times along the way, says Dr Agulnik. "We've definitely been beaten and bruised," cracks the MD.

PLANTAIN CAMPAIGN
The greenhorns got taken for a ride by some unscrupulous business associates along the way, admits Dr Agulnik. He names a failed partnership with someone they found to put their product in European stores as just one instance. They lost several thousand dollars, and as for their contact, "there are rumours the guy's in jail somewhere in the US," says Dr Agulnik.

Dr Mangal says working in a hospital sure didn't prepare them for this. "There is implicit trust whenever you deal in medicine, you trust what you're told. You can't in business," he explains. "You have to be hard-nosed and draw a firm line," adds Dr Sajan.

The three took this hard-won self-possession to their showdown with the investment 'dragons' in May, when the show was filmed. In the end the MDs didn't walk away financially independent — they just walked away. A $400,000 offer for half of the company wasn't good enough. "We think the company is worth more," says Dr Mangal (the MDs wanted to relinquish 25% at most).

The hard lessons they've learned haven't put them off expanding their venture. They expect to have small and large-sized Fruit Guards to secure everything from kiwis to pears on the market in time for Christmas. The end goal, they say is to give them a little more freedom to choose how much time they spend at the hospital - "To work because we want to, not because we have to."

 

 

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