On the morning of Dec. 10, Kevin Nelson got into a truck loaded with face shields that his company, Akron, Ohio-based NelDerm, had made to sell.
Instead, he was going to give them away. With demand for the shields down from what it was at the start of the pandemic, Nelson figured giving them away was better than them ending up unused in a landfill. So, he made the drive and gave the shields, 100,000 of them, to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
And he couldn't be happier about it.
"We've sold 2 million face shields due to COVID. At our peak, we were making 40,000 a day," Nelson said.
It was all gravy, right down to the warm feeling inside.
You see, face shields aren't NelDerm's main business. The company doesn't even normally make shields, face masks or other personal protective equipment. NelDerm is in the business of developing and manufacturing special bandages for wound closure that can be removed from skin without causing pain or irritation. The bandage products go to nursing homes and other health care providers.
But his business hit a roadblock when COVID-19 struck in March. Because of pubic health restrictions, his salespeople couldn't get into the places where they normally sold NelDerm's bandages. And a lot of customers were too occupied with the pandemic to even think about bandages at the time.
So Nelson, a 25-year-old entrepreneur who came up the bandage idea when a relative had issues with traditional bandages, pivoted. He did it to help, he said, but he unexpectedly gave his company a huge boost in the process.
NelDerm, which hired manufacturers to make the shields, priced them at $2.52 each, well below the $5 to $10 per shield that most other companies were charging.
"We wanted to cut through the noise," Nelson said.
Customers, who sometimes couldn't get shields at all elsewhere, bought them up. His first buyer ordered 10,000 shields right off the bat.
Nelson's company ended up selling more than $4 million worth of shields. Even at his discounted price, the effort produced enough profit to capitalize his young company for at least the next year and a half, he said.
He even cut short a fundraising effort he was in the midst of when shield sales took off. He had been working to raise $750,000 from equity investors, but stopped even though he'd only raised about $100,000.
"Why take on more dilutive money?" he said of his reasoning.
Now, and without having to sell all that equity, he said he's got more capital than he hoped to raise.
"As a result of those sales, we've now been able to prolong the life of the business and now we have capital to apply to our wound dressing and scaling up that commercialization," Nelson said. "I've been able to hire people."
Going into the pandemic, Nelson was basically a one-man shop, with a lot of help from Bounce Innovation Hub, the incubator where the company is located, and advisers, he said. He hired seven people to help with the shield sales, but they were temporary employees. With the new capital, he's recently been able to hire a full-time head of marketing and someone to run clinical research, he said.
And sales of his bandages have gotten easier to make, too, he said. NelDerm found a slew of new customers for its bandages after selling shields for reasonable prices when people needed them. Sometimes he even gave the shields away to health care practitioners who desperately needed them.
"It's expanded our distribution network nationwide. … People say, 'We love your face shields. We'd like to look at your wound dressings as well,' " Nelson said.
He has sold shields to all sorts of end users. The biggest customers have been dentists, he said, but other buyers include nursing homes, hospitals, meat-packing plants and correctional facilities.
NelDerm already was a company with promise, but now it's becoming a star at Bounce. The company's efforts and successful capitalization is "some of the best company news we've had in recent months, and certainly since the pandemic started. This donation just puts them over the top," said Jeanine Black, Bounce's chief marketing officer.
Some might ask: Why stop making shields now? After all, NelDerm has a successful product, and face shields aren't going to fall out of use. They may even have a larger market than before the pandemic, with concern about contagion still amplified in people's minds.
"You have to be conscious about not getting over your skis and scaling down production in time," Nelson said. "We pivoted to PPE with face shields, and now we've pivoted back."
In other words, he said, he wants to focus on his core business again rather than compete against others who are more entrenched in the face shield business.
"We still sell a couple thousand every week. But rather than drag that out, we said, 'Why don't we just get these to the front lines where people need them and need them now. … I don't want these to go to a landfill. That would be a worst case," he said.
After dropping off the 100,000 shields in Cleveland, Nelson estimated he still has about 50,000 left. He said NelDerm will probably sell some and give the rest away to health care organizations.
But if things don't go as well as hoped with vaccines and continued PPE production, Nelson said his company will rejoin the fray rather than watch medical professionals go without the protection they need.
"We have enough raw materials we could make probably another 75,000 in a couple of weeks if we needed to," he said
That would likely come as no surprise to those who know Nelson, like Black.
"Kevin is a great guy, doing fantastic things," Black said.