In 2009, Jennifer Holland was a full-time stay-at-home mum with a young son and a second baby well on the way.
Fast forward seven years, she’s developed a medical device that will soon be available in 140 countries in a distribution deal estimated to be worth $15 million. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, Holland is also now a mum of four.
The idea for Throat Scope came to the former financial accountant when she was 38 weeks pregnant with her second child. Her 15-month-old son seemed to have developed a sore throat, so she took him to the GP for a checkup.
“The doctor got out his tongue depressor in one hand and his hand-held torch in the other, and he asked me to restrain my child while he pried open his mouth with the wooden tongue depressor,” she recalls.
That “unpleasant” experience got Holland wondering whether there was a way to combine the two implements, thus making it easier for doctors to inspect patients’ throats.
In her research, she found only eight existing patents for tongue depressors from the past decade, all of which had a fiber-optic cable running through the device to provide light. Holland figured there had to be a more affordable way to create an all-in-one product.
“I tried all different things and what worked was just a piece of polycarbonate plastic attached to one of those LED torches. We taped that together and that was our very first prototype,” she says.
Now, the device features a disposable blade illuminated with an LED light, which is attached to a re-usable handle.
Holland’s appearance on the TV show Shark Tank in 2015 was one of the major steps that accelerated the development of the Throat Scope.
Although her idea received a positive reception from the panel, Holland found the pitching experience hugely nerve-wracking — but luckily, she received a little pep-talk from her six-year-old son backstage.
“My son squeezed my hand and I just remember him saying to me, ‘Mum, you look after four of us every day, you’ll be fine.’ And everything disappeared as soon as he said that,” she says.
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Her daughter also helped out, telling Holland she should wear her hair in a side-braid on Shark Tank, just like Elsa from Frozen. Naturally.
The final Throat Scope launched in October last year, and is available to GPs, hospitals and aged care through the EBOS Group and Vital Medical Supplies. It’s also sold in 305 Chemmart stores around Australia, retailing for $19.95 each.
It’ll soon be available in Europe, Canada and the US, and Holland says there will be more products coming in future.
While it’s undoubtedly useful for doctors, Holland is also encouraging parents to use the Throat Scope at home.
“We have the thermometer to check for a temperature, why not have a Throat Scope to check for a sore throat, or a new tooth or an old tooth or a sore gum, or even the brushing of the teeth correctly?” Holland says. She even uses the device to check her own back teeth before going to the dentist.
Clearly, Throat Scope has been a major success, but there were moments of doubt in the preliminary stages. Holland and her husband poured in $100,000 of their savings, so there was a lot at stake, especially as they had such young children.
“It’s such a difficult position to be in. You’re trying to be the best mum or parents you can be and you’ve got these concerns, ‘Is it going to be worthwhile?'” she explains.
However, Holland’s belief in her device has seen her through the challenges. “I think that is such a big driver — if you don’t love it and you’re not passionate about it, then people aren’t going to want to buy it,” she says.
Observing her own children during their medical appointments was another motivator. Holland’s youngest is anaphylactic and has previously needed hospital staff to hold her down while they inspected her mouth with a wooden depressor.
“I wanted to make something that lit up for the children when they were in a distressing situation. That’s why we made it look a little bit like a lightsabre, so that it was an exciting experience going to the doctor’s for an oral cavity examination or if they’ve got tonsillitis,” she explains.
These days, Holland and her family are living in Newcastle. Along with running her business, she’s still “100 per cent” a stay-at-home mum — two of her children are in school, one goes to pre-school three days a week, and her youngest is with her 24/7.
The Throat Scope.
She admits juggling business and family can be tough, particularly when her husband, a fly-in-fly-out worker, is away.
"Most days you'll find that I'm in the office and I have at least one child with me," she explains.
"They've been a big part of everything we do, from helping us with our packaging to having fun with Throat Scopes. I've always tried to balance it so we're all together and they're not missing out on having their mum with them."
Ultimately, Holland believes her experiences as a mum have taught her invaluable business smarts.
"I mean, you need to be so patient with your children, and in business you've got to be patience and waiting for those deals to come along," she explains.
"And then you've got your negotiation skills. Turning a toddler's 'no' into a 'yes' is one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced, and I've been doing that every single day. So I think having that skill as a mother translates into the business world, definitely."
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Featured image: Supplied.