Safe bet: Entrepreneur wants his device right at retailers' fingertips

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By Matt Evans - The Business Journal of the Greater Triad Area -

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Bryan Hill doesn't want to see the lawsuit, but he knows it's coming. And whether he likes it or not, when that lawsuit does come it's probably going to be a big boost for his business.

That's because the lawsuit Hill foresees would bring attention to the work force health issue that has dominated his professional life in the decade since he founded his Greensboro company, Public Health Corps Inc., and invented a product called SaniCap.

That issue is the needle stick suffered by retail and apparel industry workers who use small, hand-held tagging guns to shoot that little plastic strip into a sweater or skirt to attach a price tag.

That gun forces the plastic strip, known in the business as a "nylon monofilament tie," through the cloth with a small hollow needle projected by a metal rod. It works well and quickly, which is why the guns are used on almost every piece of clothing sold in the country.

But they only work if the needle is sharp and if the employee is putting pressure on the other side of the cloth with his or her fingers -- right next to the needle.

"Sticks do occur; it's the nature of the gun," Hill says. "If you use this gun, you're going to get stuck sooner or later. In a retail setting you've got people sharing guns that they're being stuck by.

"If we were to change the name of this gun to 'hypodermic needle' and say 'We're sharing hypodermic needles at our facility,' it would be an outrage."

It's hard to quantify the danger since needle sticks involving tagging guns don't have to be reported such as other workplace accidents. But a study in the journal Occupational Medicine published in 1999 estimated that the overall risk of an HIV infection by users of apparel tagging guns was around one in 150,000, while the risk of a hepatitis infection could be as high as one in 6,000.

The authors concluded that the danger was such that the guns should be phased out and replaced with some other device. That hasn't happened.

A court battle awaits

With public awareness of the risks of disease-transmission rising -- witness the grocery stores that now provide sanitary wipes for grocery cart handles -- Hill says a lawsuit from a stuck employee who thinks his employer could have done more to prevent the accident is all but inevitable.

"We wouldn't wish that on anybody, but there's no doubt that there are some smart attorneys out there who will take this mantle up," Hill says.

Hill founded his company, Public Health Corps in Greensboro, to address the problem from the prevention rather than legal angle back in 1996. He'd spent 26 years selling those tagging guns all over the mid-Atlantic, and he knew that they are easy, cheap and effective and, therefore, likely to be around forever.

But he kept hearing stories and complaints about getting stuck with the needles, and he saw evidence of the resulting rashes and infections.

He took his concerns back to the gun manufacturer but couldn't generate any interest in finding a solution, so he started noodling one out himself. He had no background in product design so he called up some experts at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for help. They knew of the problem but not of anybody trying to solve it, but they did give him some guidelines about what an effective solution would have to do.

It wasn't going to be easy or obvious. Sanitizing those needles properly would require immersion, since spraying or wiping on a disinfectant wouldn't get to all the necessary parts of the gun.

Keeping a big jug of disinfectant around would be impractical, and it needed to be easy to use. And alcohol wouldn't work as a disinfectant since it doesn't kill hepatitis. Bleach would work, but unless a store sold only 1980s-fashion blue jeans there would be some obvious problems.

He found the answer in a ball-point pen one night, noticing how the ink tip retracts into the plastic chamber. A year and a half of development later, he'd developed the SaniCap -- a small capsule filled with a safe, nonstaining disinfectant and plugged with a swab on one end. The user pinches the capsule to moisten the swab, inserts the needle and then squeezes the trigger on the gun.

Both the needle and the metal rod are immersed in the disinfectant inside the SaniCap, killing any traces of viruses or bacteria. Each capsule costs about 25 cents, compared to between $1 and $4 for a new needle.

Securing a patent

Sales took off quickly, and he sold half a million units his first year. Hill declined to detail current sales figures, but said revenues were up 42 percent in 2005 from the year before, and for this year so far growth is up 61 percent on top of that.

It was a lucrative idea, and Hill did the right thing by moving quickly to protect it, according to Ed Rilee, a partner with the intellectual property law firm Maccord Mason in Greensboro, who handled the SaniCap patent application.

Patents are important, of course, but Rilee works with a lot of entrepreneurs and warns them that even the strongest patent isn't going to build a business. It takes a good product to beat the odds against success.

"Only about one in 20 ideas are going to make more money than the cost of a patent application," Rilee says.

The patent is like the fence that keeps trespassers off your property. It's very important for the entrepreneur to focus on the property, though that fence does have a real value."

For most of its history Public Health Corps has sold SaniCaps only in boxes of 1,000 to bulk users in distribution centers. By contracting out the manufacturing and working mostly through national industry suppliers, the company has remained fairly small in size, with just two additional employees working with Hill out of a small office off Battleground Avenue.

But right now, Hill says his company is having to shift gears quickly to adapt to a changing marketplace. In just the past two years, individual retailers have grown to become about 20 percent of his business. Many are big names, such as Belk department stores, J. Crew, Anne Taylor Loft and others.

Responding to change

To adapt to the new market, Public Health Corps has had to make some changes of its own. It has started selling SaniCaps in boxes of 100, about a six-month supply for most retail shops. And it also has redesigned its packaging with clear instructions in both English and Spanish.

The retail market has many times the potential of the distribution center market, Hill says, so with trends going the way they are he's preparing to shift his growth strategy, too. With many more doors to knock on, the company is going to have to take more direct control of operations.

"We're going to be forced into that more over time," Hill says. "If this continues growing, even if it's going through these established distributors, the volume is going to get so high that we're just going to have to add people."

He says he may need as many as 50 employees stationed around the country in the next five years to adequately cover the market.

But the biggest challenge his company faces is simply overcoming his potential customers' ignorance of the problem, let alone the solution, Hill says. He acknowledges that it might take a big settlement with an injured employee for the reality to hit home for some companies.

Over the course of his hundreds of sales calls, though, he says he's found most executives to be genuinely concerned about employee health more than afraid of lawsuits.

That's encouraging, he says, because those employers are more inclined to be proactive before somebody gets hurt.

"It's not that they've been avoiding the issue," he says. "It's just that they didn't know."

Company Profile

Name: Public Health Corps Inc.
Address: P.O. Box 39253, Greensboro 27438
Phone: (866) 726-4227
Web site:
No. of employees: Three
Year established: 1996
Biggest problem: Lack of awareness of the potential health hazard his product addresses
Solution: Expanding his target market to the broader retail segment and trying to enhance public education through the media

Who's in Charge

Name: Bryan Hill, founder and president
Education: B.A. from UNC-Greensboro, 1983
Best business decision: Recognizing and reacting to demand for his product from the retail market niche
Goal yet to be achieved: Improving public knowledge about tagging gun workplace safety
Family: Wife, Mari; one daughter
Hobbies: Spending time with family, biking, exercise

Reach Matt Evans at (336) 370-2916 or