Garret Cawthon turns Speed lessons into innovation
It started with ketchup.
Garret Cawthon, who was a young chemical engineering student in Speed School in 1981, listened raptly as Dean Harper, professor (now emeritus) of chemical engineering, discussed the rheological (or flow) properties of ketchup.
“You stir it up and it pours out, but as soon as it sits it solidifies,” Cawthon recalls of the lesson.
Years later Cawthon took that simple lesson he learned at Speed and turned it into patented products and a company to market them—Touchless Care Concepts, based in Louisville.
Cawthon’s product line includes anti-bacterial and anti-viral sprays to treat wounds, skin rashes and other conditions commonly seen in nurseries, hospitals and nursing homes.
He remembered the ketchup lesson while changing the diaper of his one-year-old daughter, Samantha, and struggling to apply the thick diaper rash ointment.
“It was so messy, and it required you to actually put pressure on the rash area, which hurts,” he says. “That’s when I considered the possibility of inventing a spray-on, diaper-rash ointment that doesn’t run off the skin.”
Cawthon wanted to create a product that would be thick in the bottle, thin coming out of the spray tube so that it could be applied painlessly, and then thicken on the skin so that it wouldn’t run.
Painlessness, convenience, neatness and ease of use were all important. And no-contact application helps minimize infection risk, a major issue now with institutional care, he adds.
Cawthon’s degrees in chemical engineering include bachelor’s and master’s from UofL in 1983 and 1984 and a doctorate from Ohio State in 1988. He came back to UofL in the early 1990s to develop his idea at the College of Business.
He already had learned a lot about the physical properties of zinc oxide—an ingredient in all his products—while serving his Speed co-op at a catalyst company.
“Zinc oxide is so fine and when applied it goes on invisibly,” he says. “My co-op helped me select the optimal formulations I would use in my products.”
He enrolled in the business college’s New Venture Creation class, in which each student develops and creates a business plan for a new venture.
Cawthon emerged from it with the foundation and groundwork for his new company. It was time to head to the lab.
Cawthon initially developed three sprays—one with zinc oxide, a clear version and one with an antifungal formula.
“I did all the experimentation, optimized things, filed all the patent applications and geared up to start introducing the products to the marketplace,” he recalls.
Shortly after its first trade show appearance in 2000, the company startup went on hold for four years while Cawthon and his wife, Sarah, cared for their second child, Max, who was born with CHARGE Syndrome that caused blindness, deafness and mental retardation.
To earn income during that time, Cawthon taught advanced classes at UofL in both business and in chemical engineering.
Four years ago he hit the trade show circuit again and slowly he began to build a customer base. And then the business took off.
His products are being used in nursing homes and hospitals across the country, including Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Mayo Clinic.
Cawthon says his lean and mean company, which now has 15 sales representatives, can compete against bigger concerns because of the high quality and low prices of his products.
“We don’t even advertise; we’re just trade shows and word of mouth,” he says. “We sell a Mercedes for a Honda Accord price.”
Two years ago, the company took first place in an evaluation of new technology by MedAssets, a group-buying organization of about 30,000 member institutions. It also won a $50,000 Vogt Invention and Innovation Fund award that Cawthon uses for clinical trials and marketing.
Now, Cawthon says the company is securing a lucrative government contract to provide his sprays to several Veteran’s Adminstration hospitals across the country.
“Once we get into those hospitals, that will allow us to sell to all kinds of other government institutions including state nursing homes and prisons,” he says.
Cawthon continues to add to his product line, recently introducing Rash Relief Silver Spray for wound care. The product includes silver, which has anti-viral properties.
“It’s especially good for the worst kind of skin conditions and is geared for deeper pressure ulcer-type wounds” that bedridden people such as nursing home residents can develop, he says.
Along with babies, the elderly represent a formidable growth opportunity for Cawthon’s company. There are 8 million American babies in diapers a year, creating a $100 million diaper rash ointment business. And there are 25 million incontinent adults needing rash relief, one-half being treated by institutional care. That creates a $400 to $500 million business.
“So we’re focusing on that business,” Cawthon says. “There’s just so much opportunity out there.”
Cawthon says he marvels at the fact that the products that butter his bread are his lowest-tech creations. He holds patents for more complex chemical formulations, including a coating that protects electronic circuit boards from spills that could damage chips.
Cawthon, who keeps in top shape by running in triathlons, marathons and ultramarathons, approaches his business like his races.
“I’m not setting any records out there. I’m not real fast … just slow and steady.”
It seems the tortoise can beat the hare.