A Shot In The Arm For Sales?

Nobody likes needles. In the age of AIDS, nurses and doctors want to give injections without the danger of accidents. And anything that does away with hypodermics would be welcomed by the nation's preschool set.

Bioject Inc. in Portland, Ore., thought it had the ideal solution. The eight-year-old company, which went public in 1988, had been test-marketing a product, the Biojector, on the West Coast since 1990. The handheld device uses compressed carbon dioxide to shoot vaccines through the skin, making injections quicker, safer, and less intimidating.

Despite positive feedback on the Biojector concept, sales were limited. The device could deliver only one standard dose of medicine, 0.5 cc, which meant it wouldn't work with antibiotics. Its loud hiss startled some patients. And the long, metallic, flashlight shape made it awkward to use.

When Richard B. Hollis became Bioject's chief operating officer in April, 1992, after 18 years at Baxter, Genentech, and other companies, his first decision was to fix the Biojector's problems. The move took guts: Investors were pressing for solid sales income, and a redesign meant delay. But he set his engineers to work on a variable-dose, noiseless version. To get it into a user-friendly package, he hired Ziba Design, just down the road in Portland.

Hollis gave Ziba eight weeks to get it right. Starting in mid-April, 1992, six designers, led by Ziba President Sohrab Vossoughi, brainstormed. Hollis marshaled his own engineers to experiment with designs that once seemed impossible. The two teams met once a week. Ziba developed prototypes and asked for feedback from users such as nurses. Bioject found ways to vary the dose and cut out the hiss.

Ziba's biggest challenge was winning over Bioject's engineers. They were proud of the sophisticated mechanism they had created, and some doubted that an outside industrial-design house would be able to add any value. Bioject's marketing people supported a design overhaul but could not sway the engineers. It took personal intervention by Hollis to get Bioject's engineers to cooperate.

For example, Bioject's engineers had designed a safety switch that had to be held down while the injection trigger was pressed. The marketing folks thought that made the device too hard to use. They wanted the safety feature built in, so the trigger would not fire at all unless it was ready to inject. Ziba tipped the balance, persuading Hollis to get his engineers to change it.

Bioject's engineers also balked at the idea of changing the shape of the tubular device. Ziba wanted to cut it in two, moving the carbon dioxide cartridge from behind to underneath. Hollis pushed his engineers to do it.

The improved version that the two teams came up with, dubbed Biojector 2000, looks very different from the original. It is more compact, and the trigger mechanism, once awkwardly located on top of the device, is where the finger expects it--underneath. Instead of shiny metal, the aluminum device is painted a pleasing gray, with a light-blue accent on the trigger mechanism. "We have a design that's not only futuristic but elegant," says Hollis, who speeded up production of the $995 Biojector after signing a nationwide distribution agreement in April.

Hollis aims to build Bioject into a $100 million business by the year 2000. After paltry revenues of $1 million last year and with the company's stock price stagnating, he will need to ramp up sales quickly to gain Wall Street's respect. He is counting on product design to get him where he wants to go.