Lehigh Valley Suite Spot: Q&A Bio Med Sciences’ Mark Dillon
By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on December 5, 2022
Editor’s Note: Lehigh Valley Suite Spot is a monthly interview series featuring Lehigh Valley executives from a wide range of industries and company sizes.
Photographs of a burned infant and another of grafted skin hang on the walls of the Lehigh Valley manufacturing facility where Bio Med Sciences recently moved.
The graphic images tell the story of the half million burn and scar patients helped by the company’s novel brand of skin products invented 35-years ago by Bio Med founder and CEO Mark Dillon.
Bio Med’s signature products, which use Silon technology, blend the best properties of silicone and polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon) to mimic the protective and permeable characteristics of skin. The artificial skin doesn’t stick to the wound, as other bandages do, and complicate healing.
“The photographs are an effective way of explaining what we do, but just as importantly, I would like the employees here to know what we’re doing and how important it is,” Dillon said. “We’re making a difference in the world. We’re improving lives.”
In an industry dominated by the commercial success of cosmetic skin care products, Dillon has built his business in the highly specialized niche of burn and wound treatment. The company makes a dozen products under the brands of Oleeva, Rylon, and Silon. One product, a face mask customized for a woman assaulted with acid, has turned into a symbol for ending violence against women in Columbia. Bio Med is also expanding into the retail market with scar treatment and anti-aging products such as SeaAllure, reaching 20 million consumers, and developing new technology that could save soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
Dillon, who holds 60 patents, muses the business came to pass because of a professor who inspired his senior thesis that defied the conventional wisdom that silicone and polytetrafluoroethylene don’t mix.
With the encouragement of his professor, now a company shareholder, Dillon patented the idea and that led him to the Lehigh Valley where the world’s authority on the subject taught at Lehigh University. The late Professor Les Sperling referred him to Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania where his idea grew into a business.
Bio Med Sciences, which now employs over 30, is poised for growth and is part of the Lehigh Valley’s expanding Life Sciences sector, which includes more than 170 research, manufacturing, and distribution facilities. Bio Med Sciences recently tripled the footprint of its operation after a recent move into Lehigh Valley Industrial Park in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, and secured a collaborative research and development agreement with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research.
Dillon recently sat down with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) to talk about industry trends.
How did you get silicone and Teflon to mix as an undergraduate student at Alfred University?
The conventional wisdom, which I didn’t know at the time, but my professor knew, was that it was like oil and water. It didn’t mix. I took a simple approach to it. People had tried previously to make a co-polymer where the molecule would be half Teflon and half silicone. What I created is a mixture of the two that forms like a matrix embedded within a second matrix, and each matrix is continuous.
How did Ben Franklin help?
The Ben Franklin program helped in several different ways: the assistance of some seed capital, the resources the university for more sophisticated chemical analysis and testing, and the advisory capacity of business people who are familiar with the entrepreneurial process.
It lent a lot of credibility to what I was doing. There’s an approval process to get into the Ben Franklin program. They screen the applicants. They have a great success rate largely because of how effective the program is but also because of screening. So, when I was still raising capital, saying I was part of the Ben Franklin program automatically gave a level of credibility to what I was trying to do.
What was your eureka moment when you knew the business was going to make it?
The first time we put it on a human being. It was at Lehigh Valley Hospital. We did it on a skin graft donor site where they harvest skin to treat a third-degree burn. Where they harvest the skin from leaves a wound. That’s usually a good place to evaluate a new product because you know exactly how that wound is going to heal. It’s well controlled and relatively clean.
The surgeon covered one half of the wound with the product that he normally used, and he covered the other half of the wound with the Silon material.
I came back a couple of days later to see the patient. The patient thought the products were reversed. And he was kind of almost apologetic, saying it kind of hurts a bit but the other stuff is really nice. He had it backwards. That was a bit of a eureka moment when I saw with my own eyes for the first time this is way better than what they were doing.
At that point, I knew that I had something.
There was a news story a few years ago about a woman in Columbia, a domestic abuse victim who wore a mask your company produced to treat her burns. She came to meet you. Tell us about her.
She had been doused with acid. It wasn’t a crime to do this in Columbia, so she went on a campaign to change the legislation — make it a crime, put regulations on the sale of acid and require national identification. You had to explain what you wanted to use it for. She became a total fighter for this cause. The mask became a symbol of the cause. She got the first lady of Columbia to wear the mask.
I’m trying not to exploit the story, but it’s a proud moment. I knew when I made this stuff, it was going to change people’s lives. I knew this product was going to have an impact. I didn’t know it was going to become a geopolitical symbol.
Bio Med makes many products for the clinical and retail markets. What part of your business is growing the fastest?
The fastest growing market for us is the cosmetic area, wrinkle treatment. Now, that’s a very mature market, it’s a very big market. There are very big players in it. We’re relatively new to it and are a small player in it, but it’s our fastest growing segment.
What new products are you developing?
It involves antimicrobials — for example, putting active ingredients into the wound dressing to fight infection or to speed healing. And along the same line putting a drug into the scar management products that would actively reduce scarring. The U.S. military is interested in both of those fields.
What would the military use the product for?
The terminology we use is a field combat dressing. And particularly, what we’re interested in is what we call prolonged field care. Someone gets injured, and they may not get to a hospital for three days.
If it’s significant burn, they’re going to die within 72 hours. So, we need to apply a wound dressing that is going to mimic the function of skin so that, physiologically, the patient is stabilized. But the care also needs to fight infection. If infection sets in, the patient’s not going to survive.
Are there other applications for this product?
Another area of interest is in mass casualty events. To put this into context: there are 1,500 hospital beds in the United States in burn units that are designated for burn patients. And they’re dispersed over the entire country.
If you had a major disaster — anything that generated thousands of burn patients — you overwhelm the system. So, you need a first-responder type of an application to stabilize patients.
You need something that doesn’t require specialized training, something really simple. For example, we can make a roll big enough to cover an adult person because this stuff is so thin. It’s lightweight. It’s stable. It’s the medical equivalent of putting food in saran wrap.
How has Russia’s war against the Ukraine impacted your business?
We were selling a fair amount of product in Russia through a partnership with a pharmaceutical company in Europe. They made a strategic decision, and rightfully so, to withdraw all of their over-the-counter products from the Russian market in response to the invasion.
That bit of revenue wasn’t huge for us, but it was significant on top of supply chain issues, inflation, and everything else.
Another example is one of our key suppliers in the silicone area is in Germany, and they’re dealing with 30% less power available to manufacture. And they’re a big operation. I was talking with the CEO of the company a couple of months ago, and he didn’t know how he was going to fill the gap in electrical power to run his manufacturing operations.
What kind of advice would you give to other manufacturers going through this this process?
Backup supply chains — qualified backup alternatives, preferably domestic. Ten or 15 years ago, everybody was a little high on the whole idea of globalization. Let’s live in harmony. Let’s build bridges. And you realize when geopolitical things come into play, some of that stuff falls apart.
You applied to Alfred University, which has the New York State College of Ceramics, because you originally wanted to study pottery and sculpture. You changed your mind when you were exposed to ceramic engineering, which put you on the path to developing Silon technology. You still make pottery at the Baum School of Art and the Banana Factory. What role do the arts play in preparing for a career?
A friend’s daughter was trying to figure out what she wanted to do and was thinking something medical, and I gave some advice about what I thought about the field of medicine and this kind of engineering was going.
Toward the end, I asked: are you creative? Do you do any art or anything like that? You really want to foster creativity because once you have the engineering tools and, if you can keep the creativity, you will be an inventor. You’ll come up with an idea and know how to pull it off.
It’s all about looking at something with a totally different perspective or come up with an idea that somebody else wouldn’t have thought of.
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