Vitamin D deficiency is a serious global problem.
As society has migrated away from the equator and moved indoors, more than a billion humans are no longer generating enough Vitamin D from sunlight exposure that helps maintain proper systemic health. This deficiency is now linked to more than 100 diseases like depression, cancer, and multiple sclerosis.
But now help may be on the way thanks to a Seattle-area startup that has come up with a solution that doesn’t involve oral supplements or skin cancer-inducing sunlight.
Benesol Wellness is closing a $5 million round to finish regulatory approval for a walk-in machine that can supply a human with sufficient amounts of Vitamin D without burning the skin. The company has developed technology that isolates spectrums of the sun that produce important hormones in the body — but without harmful rays that cause skin cancer.
“This is going to be a much bigger business than anything I’ve built in the past,” said CEO Rick Hennessey, who most recently sold Seattle mobile software startup Cequint for $112.5 million. “We’re doing something that really helps human beings.”
To combat the problem, 80 million people in the U.S. take supplements to amp up their Vitamin D levels. But Hennessey quickly learned that pills aren’t the best way to obtain optimal levels of the vitamin — in fact, 77 percent of folks still have low levels even though supplement intake has increased over the past several years, he said.
“If you talk to doctors who recommend supplements, then tell them about our machine, all of them say they would sent their patients [to the machine],” Hennessey said.
Benesol’s machine, which is set to debut in Canada next year, isolates about 0.04 percent of the sun’s spectrum. The company has spent the last five years running biological tests at places like Harvard and Boston University, while also talking with world experts on Vitamin D.
Hennessey noted that isolating this specific spectrum was only possible thanks to new technology and DNA sequencing research that revealed how exactly sunlight produces important hormones and peptides in the human body.
Benesol has also developed accompanying software that asks a patient questions like what skin type they have and where they live. From there, the machine can predict how long you’ll need to sit in the machine for — 90 seconds is typical for someone with lighter skin; two minutes for darker tones.
“You walk into the machine and you get enough vitamin D to last for the entire month,” Hennessey said.
With the fresh funding from angel investors, the three-person company plans to finish final regulatory approval before figuring out exactly where to install the machines. Possible locations include pharmacies, health clubs, office buildings and grocery stores, in addition to treatment centers and depression clinics.
“We’ll initially test different locations and find the best place for consumers to use this,” Hennessey said. “Then we’ll do a full launch based upon those metrics.”
Each machine session will be affordable enough “so consumers can use their credit card, walk in, and get reimbursed from their own health dollars,” Hennessey said.
The entrepreneur, who sold two other startups before Cequint, is particularly bullish about the impact Benesol can have compared to his previous endeavors. Part of the reason for the excitement is what he’s seen in focus group studies for Benesol’s machine — 96 percent of people said they would use it.
“If I had 15 percent of people wanting to use my service, I’d think that was a home run,” he said. “To have our focus group numbers so high was sort of incredible and almost hard for us to believe in the beginning.”
Learn more about Benesol here.