BUSINESS PROFILE

Radiation Shield Technologies chief shifts from medical doctor to inventor

 

ebenn@MiamiHerald.com

Ronald DeMeo is an anesthesiologist and spine specialist, an inventor and entrepreneur, a father and husband, an amateur boxer and cyclist.

And for his next trick: DeMeo has become a bra maker and salesman.

“People don’t appreciate how tremendously complicated a well-made bra is,” DeMeo said last week, holding a black underwire model embellished with a pink ribbon in the center. “It’s a three-dimensional garment with something like 25 sew steps.”

DeMeo’s $69.99 bras do more than support — they protect. Lined with Demron, a patented fabric created by DeMeo (Demron is an anagram of his name), the bras block radiation emitted by everything from X-ray machines to nuclear blasts.

Several hundred units of Demron bras are stacked and ready for shipment at DeMeo’s Radiation Shield Technologies factory in Miami Gardens. After years of research, and manufacturing trial and error, the bras are set to be available for retail purchase this spring. DeMeo said he will include a pair of Demron women’s underwear with every order as an introductory offer.

“The customers we have in mind are women who are in work environments like hospitals and airports, where they may be exposed to more consistent radiation, even in lower levels,” DeMeo said.

The bras are neither proven nor marketed to prevent breast cancer. Rather, DeMeo said they are “one of many tools in the toolbox” to help reduce risk.

“We know that Demron reduces radiation, and we know that radiation can cause cancer. So while we don’t know that the bra will prevent cancer, we do know it is another step toward prevention,” he said. “And when you think about it, that’s what our company is all about: awareness, preparedness, protection.”

Radiation Shield Technologies, which DeMeo founded in 2002, brought in just under $3 million in sales last year, he said. That represented about a 20 percent growth from 2012, all from sales of Demron-lined body suits ($1,700-$2,800), vests ($600-$800), shields ($850-$7,500), helmets, masks and other items to military and medical personnel and other first responders.

DeMeo’s Demron gear is the first of its kind to offer full, government-tested protection against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats (abbreviated in the industry as CBRN) in a lightweight, breathable material. RST’s contracts extend from police and fire departments in Hialeah, Boston and New Jersey to troops and rescue workers in South Korea, Japan, Iraq, Brazil, Vietnam and other nations.

Asia has been a particularly profitable region for RST, a fact that DeMeo credits to his decision to donate about 200 Demron protective suits to emergency workers in Japan immediately after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. (That donation, which helped DeMeo earn two Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce awards, came a year after DeMeo gave $20,000 worth of sporting goods to Miami-Dade schools in an effort to combat childhood obesity.)

“At the time, it was just a knee-jerk reaction: We need to get suits over there right away,” DeMeo said. “I later realized that the Asian market is extremely difficult for Western companies to break into. But they viewed our donation as a gift, and that small gesture really opened the door for us to build relationships throughout the region.”

DeMeo said RST’s 2011 donation has led to “thousands” of sales throughout Asia. It also forced him to add a new color to RST’s product line. The first suits he sent to Japan were black, a symbol of death in that culture.

“They were very polite, but they asked if next time we could send white suits,” DeMeo said. “Now we have white as an option.”

With a boost from the new Demron bras, RST’s first direct-to-consumer product, DeMeo projects the company will reach $5 million in sales this year.

This also will be the first fully operational year for RST’s Miami Garden’s facility, a 24,000-square-foot warehouse the company bought for $1.5 million in late 2011. The space is about triple the size of RST’s previous factory, in Medley, and it underwent significant electrical upgrades that put RST out of production for several months last year.

RST is headquartered in Coral Gables, home to DeMeo’s Meridian Spinal Therapeutics Interventional Medicine, where he serves as medical director. Between the two businesses, he employs about 45 people.

It was through his clinical practice that DeMeo recognized the need for an alternative to the heavy lead vests that are the industry standard for patients and medical workers near X-ray machines. He began to notice radiation burns on his face, which he attributed to a steady stream of X-ray exposure, and he set off to create a mask filled with radiation-blocking powders.

“It left a chalky residue and looked like hell, but it worked,” DeMeo said of a prototype. “One day in the operating room, I put the mask on the X-ray table as an experiment, and it didn’t show up in the films. It was X-ray-proof.

“Another doctor in the OR asked if I had a patent for it, and I said to him, ‘What’s a patent?’ 

DeMeo soon found out. With the help of Joseph Kucherovsky, RST’s chief scientist and longest-tenured employee, DeMeo has registered more than a dozen patents. The one for Demron came during the same period in 2001 as one of America’s biggest corporate scandals.

“Enron was everywhere in the news, and ‘Demron’ just popped into my head, and it stuck,” DeMeo said.

The demand for Demron-lined and competing protective gear ebbs and flows with major events like 9/11, the subsequent anthrax attacks and the Fukushima disaster, said Carl Jorgensen, who is director of Netherlands-based consulting firm Hotzone Solutions’ new U.S. office in Utah.

“There certainly seems to be an increased awareness as such incidents transpire,” Jorgensen said. “The old concept of bad guys on one side, good guys on another is a thing of the past. We now recognize that there are threats all around us, and we are part of a growing industry that works to minimize and protect against those threats.”

Glen Rudner is a Colorado-based hazmat and emergency-response trainer who said he has met DeMeo at industry conferences and has been impressed by demonstrations of Demron products.

“Equipment like Dr. DeMeo’s and from other companies have brought CBRN capabilities from the military battlefield to the hands of civilian first-responders,” Rudner said. “As a trainer, keeping my people safe is my first priority, and that what his products are designed to do.”

The Demron-making process carried out in Miami Gardens involves blasting metals into nano particles and blending them into a thin, polyster fabric that can be shaped and cut into any number of CBRN-protective products. Near the heavy-duty metal equipment, a handful of workers sit at sewing machines, stitching Demron into body suits and vests. The facility is capable of making about 100 suits a week.

RST’s top-of-the-line body suits weigh less than 15 pounds, about the same as the lead vests draped over patients during X-rays.

Before moving its factory to Miami Gardens, RST outsourced most of its production to other states. It wound up being a cumbersome process that DeMeo said added months from customer order to delivery.

“I would rather employ people in Miami-Dade than in Alabama, and there are a lot of skilled cut-and-sew workers in this area,” he said, acknowledging that the machinery-side know-how still leaves something to be desired. “We have to call Akron, Ohio, every time we have a machinery problem because we can’t find anyone here to do the job.”

A New Jersey native, DeMeo moved with his family to Broward County when he was a child. He went on to earn a medical degree from the University of South Florida and complete a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Miami before continuing his medical education and academic career in Texas. He returned to South Florida in the late ’90s to start his clinical practice, founding RST a few years later.

DeMeo never set out to be an inventor or entrepreneur. So, after his Demron patent began to get the attention of investment bankers and venture-capital types, DeMeo sought the advice of a career counselor at UM. That led to an MBA from the university’s School of Business Administration.

Awake before 6 a.m. daily for boxing classes or other exercise, DeMeo, 51, shuffles between seeing patients in Coral Gables and overseeing production operations in Miami Gardens.

“I like to say I’m full time at both,” he said. “I’m like that [attention-deficit disorder] guy who never took Ritalin. I’m never settled with one course at a time. I have to keep finding new things to do.”

DeMeo lives in Miami Beach with his wife, British (and Demron Bra) model Lucy Clarkson DeMeo, and their 10-month-old son, Hudson.

He said he is unsure what RST’s next product might be, although he has been getting interest from firefighters and others in a $9 Demron-enhanced back-support belt.

Presently, DeMeo said he is focused on selling the Demron Bra. He said it reminds him of why he got into the radiation-blocking garment business: to protect his colleagues in the medical field.

“I keep thinking of OR nurses whose only options are to wear hot, heavy lead vests or have no protection at all from harmful radiation,” DeMeo said. “No OR nurse signs up for the job to be exposed to a weapon of mass destruction every day.”

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