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August 2012
“We Talk Innovation”
By Peter Hildebrandt

     Rick Admani and his brother Ramzi Abulhaj are the owners of Prodigy Diabetes Care, located in Charlotte on the I-77 corridor near Northlake Mall. Prodigy designs and manufactures medical testing kits and supplies for glucose level monitoring by people with diabetes.

     The brothers’ family has a history of diabetes, and their grandfather lost his eyesight because of the disease. For Admani and Abulhaj, it was the impact of this disease on their family that led them to the business they have built. They believe that if better blood glucose monitoring devices had been available—especially for the vision impaired diabetic—their grandfather might still have his sight.

     Spurred by this experience, Admani and Abulhaj brought an innovation to the diabetic community by creating the first blood glucose testing devices that provide audible results in addition to a visual display.

     People living with diabetes struggle daily with their body’s inability to produce or effectively use insulin, a sugar-removing hormone that enables cells to receive the energy needed to function. An insulin deficit leaves you with too much sugar in your blood. This is akin to having a car with a tank full of fuel but no ignition key. You have no way to start using that fuel.

     Over 16 million Americans live with diabetes, with adult-onset being the most common type. Those prone to Type II diabetes are individuals over 40 who are overweight and lead a sedentary lifestyle. Quite often diabetics also have sight-threatening eye problems including glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts.

     According to the CDC, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents, tripling the rate found only a generation ago. Almost one half of those 16 million people will develop some level of diabetic retinopathy—with up 25,000 individuals going blind each year.

     Given the consequences, it is easy to understand the importance of monitoring glucose levels. It is also important that the monitor be easily read by the individual. This is especially true in the case of an individual who is already visually impaired as a result of the disease. Until Prodigy introduced its line of talking meters, patients had to read a digital display to obtain their results.

 

Personal Commitment

     Admani and Abulhaj were born and raised in Jerusalem, but moved to the United States in their teenage years. Both attended college in Minnesota. Admani studied biology and engineering, and was drawn to the health care field. Abulhaj, five years older than Admani, focused on engineering.

     “I am now working more on the growth of our company, including research and development of new products through engineering—more of the big picture of the company,” says Abulhaj. “My brother basically handles the day-to-day operation from sales to marketing to purchasing to shipping and receiving. We have found that this division of responsibilities keeps the company operating and moving forward at the same time.”

     “We’re about keeping people healthy through self-monitoring when they’re stricken with diabetes,” adds Admani. “We want to make sure they have the correct preventive maintenance. This disease is an epidemic right now. The statistics show that more people are developing diabetes because more people are overweight, inactive, and have poor diets. Studies predict that more than half of all Americans could develop diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020.”

     “We looked at several locations for our business, and decided to operate from Charlotte because of the pool of educated labor in place, the mature interstate trucking industry and airline hubs, and geographic accessibility in general. We supply Medicare patients around the country, and they depend on us. We have to be able to deliver our product every day to every place, and Charlotte is great for that.”

 

Healthcare Business Model

     Diabetes is a silent killer and regular monitoring is critical. Meeting the need for self testing seemed to be a straightforward proposition. But competition in this industry is tough, Adman says, because the market is dominated by four mega corporations, Johnson & Johnson, Roche Diagnostics, Bayer and Abbott.

     “These companies spent hundreds of millions in marketing and sales departments,” laments Admani. “We had to figure out how to introduce a better product at a lower price without having to spend that kind of money on marketing. Unlike the big companies, we don’t have a huge sales force that approaches doctors to convince them to prescribe our products for patients.

     “Instead, we go to the payers, the insurers, and show them the savings they can achieve with us. This is our strategy: produce an innovative, high quality product that costs less money, and pass the savings on to the consumers.”

     Admani says Prodigy’s products provide the same clinical data, accuracy and precision as the big manufacturers, but at a large reduction in price. The key to Prodigy’s success, he says, is the innovation of the audible meter, the quality of its products, and its perseverance in the marketplace.

     “Because of our audible meters, diabetics with low vision or blindness can test their blood sugar without assistance from anyone else. Though we developed the products for those diabetics with vision problems, all diabetics can use the meters and benefit from the audio features. A study by the University of Florida has shown that patients who use an audible meter are more likely to test as directed by their doctor.

     “We tried to find a niche that’s attractive to everybody in the market, one that will be beneficial to the physician, patient and health care company. We do this at a small fraction of the price charged by the big companies. That is basically why we have succeeded. With our focus on quality, continued innovations for patients, and low costs in a tighter health care spending environment, we expect that demand for our products will continue to grow.”

     Prodigy is focused on quality control for its products, Admani says. Diabetic patients need to get accurate and reliable results. In addition to testing at the site of manufacturing, the company has a lab in Charlotte that tests every lot of meters and test strips before they are shipped to any customers.

     “Our main competitors are the big four companies. We compare our product quality-wise to all of these brands. Results consistently show that our quality is as good as, if not better, than their products,” he asserts.

     Prodigy also prides itself on being small enough to make decisions quickly, without all the red tape of a mega multi-national corporation. Abulhaj points out, “We can listen to the diabetic community and adjust our products to respond to their needs without having to go through months and years of focus groups and committees.”

 

Wide Vision

     Admani has spent 22 years in health care. He and Abulhaj are true entrepreneurs, having always been drawn to creating their own opportunities rather than working for someone else.

     The brothers have a deep working knowledge of the global economy. They have visited various locations throughout the world to research manufacturing processes and options.

     According to Admani, “You have to have a wide vision. We have some product needs that are best done overseas. We also have many requirements, whether because of the level of technology, automation, and engineering that we want to do domestically. We try to find that balance. It’s important to us that we are an American company selling products to Americans.”

     Prodigy Diabetes Care distributes its products for patients insured under the federal Medicare program, Medicaid programs in many states, and for private health insurance providers. Prodigy’s reach, however, is worldwide. It is one of only seven North Carolina companies to receive the U.S. Commerce Department award for excellence in exporting.

     “The Department of Commerce has been a great benefit to us in exporting,” adds Admani. “Our company buys a lot of products from overseas, and it’s important that we sell products to other countries. Commerce was invaluable in expanding the export business. They opened a lot of doors for me that I could not get through on my own. They bring a lot of credibility when you place your product on the market.”

 

Looking Ahead

     Today, Prodigy’s revenues primarily derive from the sale of blood glucose meters and test strips. As the population of diabetics grows, and as health care providers realize the benefit to preventing rather than treating diabetic problems, Prodigy is poised to grow and innovate in its product categories. New features for existing products, and new products to help diabetics follow their testing plans, are always in the works at Prodigy.

     “I believe that there are benefits to Obamacare,” says Admani, “because I think it will allow more people to pay for preventive testing through insurance. People who don’t have insurance typically won’t test. That often leads to higher costs for medications, surgeries and hospitalizations. Also, because the larger burden of providing insurance will fall on Medicaid and Medicare, the federal government will have to seek lower cost providers of quality products.”

     Both Abulhaj and Admani agree, Prodigy is positioned well to meet the demand. They began the business that is now Prodigy in 2006 with only five employees; now they are approaching 100. The company has been recognized for several years as one of the fastest growing businesses in Charlotte, and in the southeast.

     “I enjoy the technology side of our business. I am happy to provide a way for people all over the world to live healthier lives. I’m excited to operate a business that benefits our employees and their families here in Charlotte.”

     Like a lot of immigrants, Admani came to this country and fell in love with it. He saw a better future, better opportunities for his children, and feels blessed to be here.

     “Except for business travel, I am pretty much always with my wife and children. Family is the most important part of life. Our good fortune in Charlotte has allowed us to shoot for our dreams.”

 

 

Peter Hildebrandt is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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