Will America’s Hospitals Adopt a Dehydration Fix From the Developing World?

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this week a San Francisco-based startup said it had raised $3 million. Investors include nightclub impresario Sam Nazarian and football Hall of Famers John Elway and Ronnie Lott. Are they investing in a tequila brand? A fitness app? An electric-yacht recharging station?

None of the above. They’re backing the maker of a powder that aims to improve on oral rehydration therapy (ORT), which the Lancet described as “potentially the most important medical advancement” of the 20th century. Called Drip Drop, the company has developed a new formula that it says costs exponentially less than intravenous hydration treatments and tastes better than other oral solutions. It also works as a hangover cure and an energy booster, which helps explain the new investors.

Drip Drop founder Eduardo Dolhun became interested in ORT when he traveled to Guatemala as a medical student in 1993 and landed in the middle of a cholera outbreak. In the U.S., intravenous fluids are the main treatment doctors use to fight dehydration. In developing countries, where millions of children die each year from dehydration caused by infectious diarrhea, doctors rely on ORT, which is cheaper and easier to administer in most cases.

“Oral rehydration therapy is a prime example of reverse technology,” Dolhun says. “It was engineered for resource-constrained environments to increase quality of care and decrease costs. Well, both of those things are big targets for U.S. medicine right now.”

U.S. hospital admissions to treat dehydration cost $5.5 billion in 2004, according to the Annals of Epidemiology. That includes the expense of administering IVs, as well as other hospital costs that could be avoided if patients could get hydration treatment at home. One hiccup: Many people find rehydration drinks, which are laden with salt, unpalatable. Dolhun thought he could cut into those costs if he could improve the taste.

In 2007 he raised some money from friends and family and started tinkering. By that point he was running a private clinic in San Francisco, and began trying out different mixtures of sugars and salts on his patients. In 2010, Dolhun settled on a formula and started manufacturing. In April, Dolhun hired Anne Kallin Zehren, whose previous jobs include publisher of Teen People and president of Current TV, as chief executive officer to focus on distribution.

Dolhun has used his connections to get a handful of hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University Medical Center, to try Drip Drop in patient care, he says. Zehren also sees a retail market for Drip Drop’s eponymous product, which comes in powder form and sells for about $2.50 a dose.

A taste of the $5 billion sports drinks market might be the bigger prize. “We want to be in the leading hospitals, and we want to be in pharmacies,” she says. But the company is also developing new flavors and a liquid version. “The average Joe who drinks too much coffee and starts feeling fatigue in the afternoon—a glass of Drip Drop will solve that as well.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.