Perhaps it was a baby boomer that first quipped, "Quitting smoking was the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know, because I've done it a thousand times." But now for the aging demographic, the effect of decades of tobacco is no laughing matter.
As the boomers hit their 60s, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), resulting from chronic bronchitis or emphysema, is on the rise.
"The overwhelming cause is smoking," said Jim Bixby, chairman and CEO of SeQual Technologies Inc., a San Diego-based company that creates medical, military, industrial and commercial oxygen concentrator systems and air-dryer products.
Romanticized in print, television and movies, the boomers grew up on cigarettes, and now COPD is the only major disease on the rise for their generation, according to Bixby. Many of these aging health care patients are discharged from the hospital with severely compromised lungs and spend the rest of their lives on oxygen therapy, he said.
They become prisoners in their own home, tethered to 50-pound oxygen machines by a 50-foot cord. Seeing both a need -- there are 2 million patients currently on oxygen -- and an opportunity, Bixby and his colleagues at SeQual designed Eclipse technology. Five years in development and costing $12 million to produce, Eclipse provides continuous oxygen in a portable unit about the size of a child's backpack.
"My mind led to the paradigm of the laptop, a machine that can run up to four hours on a charge," said Bixby. "I can use my laptop continuously and travel the world."
In a product testimonial, Shirley Zakovics, a patient from Boise, Idaho said, "The Eclipse is our prayer answered. We travel a lot and the Eclipse makes it much easier."
The system meets COPD patients' needs 24/7, whether they're staying in or going out, and cuts down on costs for HME providers by reducing equipment deliveries and service calls.
"This is one of the few cases where you get to do well for yourself by doing well for others," Bixby said. "In a little over a year, Eclipse went from no market share to the 5 to 10 percent region of overall market share," he said. "This ought to become a dominant system."
In October, the Wall Street Journal recognized Eclipse's "maximum efficiency and mobility" with a 2007 Technology Innovation Award.
"We are pleased to have our work recognized as not only cutting-edge, but also capable of having a major positive impact on millions of people with chronic lung disease," Bixby said in a press release.
SeQual, in a joint venture with Taiwan-based manufacturer Tatung Co., channels its oxygen concentrators into the Asian market. With a $4.35 million equity financing in February 2006, SeQual was able to fund Eclipse's startup and market launch.
In March 2007, the company was selected for the Phase 1 SBIR award from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop "an extreme version" of Eclipse. The U.S. military looks to replace the traditional 125-pound cylinders of compressed oxygen with the 17-pound Eclipse. The economy and efficiency of a small unit that provides a continuous flow of oxygen will save lives, Bixby said.
The future looks bright for SeQual, which is good for all who need compressed oxygen, from troops to baby boomers.
Chung Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.