The Origin of SimplyThick EasyMix:
A Xanthan Gum Thickener for People with Dysphagia
Hello! In case you are new to my blog, my name is John Holahan, and I am the founder of SimplyThick, LLC. I’m also the inventor of our original product, SimplyThick®. SimplyThick is a very unique company that I have had the privilege of serving for the last 20 years. Many people might say that I “built” SimplyThick, but I truly feel that by serving the customers and employees, SimplyThick has grown into the kind of place that I always wanted to believe could exist. We aren’t flashy, and we don’t brag very often. But I am often asked to tell the story of where SimplyThick came from.
First, to understand the story, let me share a couple of background items with you. We serve people with swallowing disorders. Or you may have heard it described as a medical condition called dysphagia. Dysphagia is defined as a swallowing problem, sometimes called a swallowing disorder. In some versions of swallowing problems, people cannot manage their liquid consumption without an instant food thickener added to their beverages. The thickening agent simply allows them to better control, organize, and initiate a good strong swallow. Without thickeners, many people would end up on a feeding tube.
SimplyThick officially came into being in May 2001, and we launched our product in October 2001. But the story of SimplyThick actually begins a few years earlier...
I was working for a small division of a large company that happened to be the world’s largest manufacturer of a thickener called xanthan gum. One day, a co-worker called me and suggested that we sell xanthan gum to people with dysphagia. When I asked why she said candidly that she felt that xanthan gum gave her more time with her mother. I was intrigued, and she told me her story:
When her mother was in hospice care, her mother decided that drinking beverages thickened with commercial instant food thickeners (all corn starch powders at that time) was not something she wanted to do. She understood the implications, and she refused to drink them. Somewhat distraught, my co-worker spoke of her mother’s decision; one thing led to another, and after discussing the possibilities of xanthan gum, my co-worker brought home some xanthan gum powder and used a blender to create thickened beverages for her mother. Her mother did drink the beverages made with xanthan gum, and ultimately, she felt that this gave her a few additional months of time with her mother.
I was inspired by the story and began to research xanthan gum possibilities. But I soon discovered that this idea was not something that fit our business. As a manufacturer, selling products in smaller containers was not a great idea. And there were a couple of very large competitors in the market already. I also knew that the properties of a xanthan gum powder would be very difficult to use at home by the average consumer. We would have to find a better way to deliver the xanthan gum.
So we tabled the idea, until:
A couple of years later, a series of events took place that brought the idea back to life and launched it into the world.
First, I was able to go back to school to work on an MBA while continuing to work full time. Halfway through the program, my division was shut down, and I lost my job. Then, I took an Entrepreneurship class. While we were choosing a business idea to incubate in class, I pitched the idea of making a better thickener for people with dysphagia. I brashly told my classmates that we would make a xanthan gum liquid thickener – literally a beverage thickener for liquids already in a liquid form - as the key to solving all the problems with powders. At the time, I had no idea if I could make that part work, but this was for school, so I wasn’t too worried.
It might be that my idea was so compelling, or it might be that I had brought props to my pitch, or it might be that I was the only one in our group without a full-time job (and would do all the project work), but whatever the reason, they chose my idea to incubate for our class.
As we worked on the idea, I ran into something unexpected: the professor didn’t really understand the difference between the real-world and academics. He asked me what speech-language pathologists thought of my idea. I told him that they loved it. He asked me how I knew. I said that we were simply assuming for class purposes. In response, he suggested that I call the local large teaching hospital telling them that I’m an MBA student with an idea I’d like their input on. I really couldn’t argue with that, so I picked up the phone, called the hospital, and reached the Director of Rehab on the first call. I gave her my pitch, and much to my surprise, she said it sounded interesting and invited me to their staff meeting the next week.
I confidently accepted the invitation and hung up the phone. Uh oh. At this point, the idea was all conceptual. There was no prototype. But I knew I needed one. So I spent the next few days scrambling for parts and pieces and equipment.
The following week, my classmate and I showed up with a prototype of the world’s first gel thickener at their staff meeting.
Early SimplyThick prototype vs. starch thickener
We made the pitch, and there was a terrible extended silence for what felt like an eternity (although realistically, I’m sure it was only a second or two). We weren’t sure how the pitch landed – until suddenly, the room came alive with questions and enthusiasm. In that moment, I knew we had struck a chord and were on to something. Those people in that first meeting helped us so much as we formulated and designed our initial product launch. They advised us to package the thickening gel in individual packets based upon thickness levels. Probably most importantly, they told us that as clinicians it would make their lives easier if we used 2 different packet sizes – nectar packets and honey packets – with consistent directions for each packet. They were instrumental to our initial design.
I went back to my professor and told him something like – “see! I told you they loved it.”
And he said, “but John aren’t a lot of your customers going to be in nursing homes? What do nursing homes think about your idea? “
UGH. Why didn’t he understand that this was JUST a school project?
So after some prodding, I found a nursing home, and I picked up the phone to call the number in the phone book. I gave them the same pitch of an MBA student with an idea and was invited to come and show them the concept. They were even more excited than the hospital group. They helped us study the benefits of the product and even worked in our booth at a New Orleans tradeshow later in 2001.
So again, I went back to the professor and said “SEE! I told you they love it!”
Then some weird things began to occur. I had classmates ask me if I was really going to pursue this idea. I had a classmate tell me that if I started a company, he wanted to work for it. I had another classmate tell me that if I started a company, he would be interested in investing. I had a different professor who heard the buzz and said that if I started a company, he wanted to invest too.
However, at the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child. And I got a job offer from a nice big company in St. Louis that would be a great reward for the MBA and included all the big company perks – healthcare, bonus, nice salary, vacation, etc.
As May 2001 rolled around, I still had not made a decision about which direction I would take. But with all the momentum around the dysphagia project, we did start the company. Soon after, I graduated with my MBA, my wife quit her job, and our oldest child was born.
My beautiful daughter during play time
I faced 2 great options: 1) working for the startup company focused on making a better product to help those with dysphagia or 2) that big company job. But they are so diametrically opposite each other. Full disclaimer: there really is no way to make a pro and con list to see what the “right” choice is.
For us – me and my wife – it really came down to a final discussion as we went and picked up our daughter’s baby pictures. We decided if we didn’t pursue the dysphagia product (unnamed at the time), I would always wonder if it would have worked and if it would have made a difference in people’s lives.
And so we (and I do mean we – my wife, our daughter and I) committed to the company, and I turned down the very nice, big company job.
Over the next 5 months, my partners and I worked hard to launch SimplyThick gel out into the world. We found a manufacturing company that would make the product for us, and importantly, would help to be sure we complied with all rules and regulations to ensure compliance with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They helped us select our preservatives – citric acid (the acid form of sodium citrate), potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate – to make the gel thickener shelf-stable. Just as important as what we put in the formulation is some of the things we didn’t add – like starches and other less desirable gums like pectin and guar gum. We hired people to create our Nutrition Facts panel per FDA guidelines and list items like allergens, calories, and soluble fiber. We worked with designers to get our packaging right. We found a warehouse. We created a web site (www.simplythick.com) And we, of course, had to raise money.
In October 2001, the American Dietetic Association held its annual convention in St. Louis. That’s less than 10 miles from my house. Many things fell into place, and the week before the show, our first shipment of product was delivered. We prepared our first samples of nectar consistency packets and honey consistency packets to hand out. I still remember the excitement, anticipation, and pride as I carried our supplies to our first trade show with my daughter in a baby backpack looking over my shoulder. It was a huge day for all of us!
SimplyThick Nutrition Panel
SimplyThick at the 2001 American Dietetic Association Convention in St. Louis, MO
SimplyThick at the 2001 American Dietetic Association Convention in St. Louis, MO
It was an incredible, highly productive eight months from classroom bravado to a saleable product.
To this day, when I see the amazing expressions on people’s faces as they learn what SimplyThick can do versus any powder, I’m reassured that I made the right choice for me, and more importantly, for our customers.
And that is just the story of first-generation SimplyThick. Someday, I’ll write down the story of how our revolutionary new IDDSI compliant formulation – SimplyThick EasyMix came to be!
See for yourself how easy it is to thicken a beverage using SimplyThick.