If we're forced to wear and carry medical devices all the time, we can at least spice them up with some color and decorative accents, right? That's what motivated a Pittsburgh couple to create their own business aimed at designing vinyl skin covers for various diabetes devices that include the Omnipod tubeless insulin pump and Dexcom continuous glucose monitor (CGM).
Their outfit is called PumpPeelz, and in the nearly eight years since it first launched, the small but mighty enterprise has become quite popular in our Diabetes Community. The inventors are Scott and Emily (Hixon) Imblum, and Emily's the one who has lived with T1D since age 21. It was her frustration with the drab look of her medical devices that spurred their design ingenuity.
Originally, the couple just designed covers for the Omnipod. But over the years, they've added more devices and decorative choices to their inventory.
What started in 2011 with just stylish stickers for Emily's Omnipod, Lifescan glucose meter and Dexcom CGM has now expanded to 2,500 designs spanning dozens of D-devices. Aside from just sticker skins, there are medical tape "patches" that help CGM sensors stay on longer, temporary tattoos, screen protectors and most recently released, customizable phone cases. Emily tells us they'll soon be launching a new patch material that can be worn for 14 days, and they're also planning smartphone cases that will be customizable with Peelz, along with tempered glass screen protectors for the latest Omnipod DASH touchscreen receiver.
Whether it's a polka dot, plaid or a flowery pattern, or if you prefer to make your gadgets look like cute ladybugs or cartoon characters, PumpPeelz is now a go-to decorative source for PWDs (people with diabetes) eager to style-up their diabetes technology.
"The Diabetes Online Community is constantly evolving and companies do come and go," Emily says. "There is a core group of us that got started early on like Myabetic, Genteel, and a few others that keep in touch and collaborate. I think it's great when a new product is released that can help all of us! It's awesome to see so many patient entrepreneurs out there looking to make a difference."
In fact, Emily and Scott's story has a sort of "David vs. Goliath" feel to it -- with the twist of David convincing Goliath they should be friends. In this case, it's the story of a husband-wife pair vying for the support of the widely-popular Pod manufacturer Insulet, using the online community's voice that was much different several years ago when they were just starting out.
High School Sweethearts Reunite
The backstory behind PumpPeelz actually began more than a decade ago when Emily and Scott started dating during high school, many years before they were married in August 2013, and their son was born in 2016.
Back in those early dating years, diabetes hadn't yet entered the picture. The pair graduated and took on a long-distance relationship while attending separate colleges in different states. But the stars aligned after a few years, and they transferred to the same college outside Pittsburgh.
Turns out, just around then, Emily was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 21. She started on the Omnipod shortly after her diagnosis, and that led to the idea of creating decorative diabetes device designs based on their mutual backgrounds. Emily worked as a portrait and wedding photographer running her own studio, while Scott's career path was in business development at Pittsburgh Technology Council, along with teaching music lessons, tapping into his commercial music technology degree. In those early years both were still working full-time, but in their "off-hours" their time was spent together building up their diabetes business.
Scott says they'd been casually tossing the idea around of an Omnipod case since their college days. They were just sitting around one day talking about all the children with diabetes wearing Pods decorated with the stickers they'd created, but how no company had actually moved in on the business of creating an actual accessory product.
"With Scott's creativity and motivation, I knew we would figure out a way to create a product," Emily says. "When I saw Scott's first sketches of what a cover or case for the Pod could be like, I was thrilled! It seemed like in no time at all we went from a simple concept to a product that people would be excited to try and use."
The idea blossomed into a business concept from there.
Convincing the Omnipod Makers
Scott started mapping out a project with a few friends from engineering school, and they prototyped cases on plastic printers -- even making some vacuum-form plastic cases with different colors. They created an entire promotional pitch and sent the package to Insulet, hoping for a positive response...
But they initially got denied... for good reason, Scott admits.
The actual cost of manufacturing plastic cases was just too extreme for a relatively small market, he acknowledges. It would have cost tens of thousands of dollars for molds and materials, making the price of a case simply unaffordable. Plus, the concept would require a ton of testing to make sure the cases wouldn't mess with the RF signal strength of the Pods -- potentially raising FDA regulatory concerns and even possible liability problems if someone blamed the case for interfering with the insulin delivery.
"It's not as simple as making an iPhone case when you're talking medical devices," Scott says.
So instead of plastic cases, the idea evolved into vinyl adhesives that would be thin enough not to interfere with the Pods. "I basically took a piece of paper and started wrapping it around the Omnipod and started making cuts where it was wrinkling," he said. "A few hours later I ended up with a shape that seemed to fit around the Pod... and the rest is history."
That's how the "OmniSkinz" came to be, but the product still wasn't yet ready for prime time.
Diabetes Online Community's Persuasion Power
Scott says they received a rejection letter from Insulet in 2011 basically saying that the pump company liked the idea and "would contact us in the future."
We all know what that means," Scott says. "We were pretty down about our idea losing traction, so Emily and I decided to put all of our work and information out online in a blog.
Wanting to persuade Insulet, they took photos of the Peelz and posted them online including surveys to gather feedback and also a link to Insulet's customer support email. They received several thousand views and dozens of comments and emails in an incredible outpouring of support from the D-Community. Before long, Insulet's marketing director called Scott back and said the company supported the idea and would help if they get it off the ground!
"It was just huge for us -- a big confidence boost that we could make something happen and that the D-Community wanted us to at least try... we owed it to them to do our best to make a product," Scott said.
That started the relationship, but the proposed name at that time -- "OmniSkinz" -- didn't fly. Corporate legal said no because "Omni" was included, and Scott says they were told the company didn't want customers thinking the product was made by Insulet. Pod Skinz also didn't fly for the same reason.
So after polling the D-Community, they settled on PumpPeelz -- a name Scott says came to him during a drive home from work one night. They debated spelling Peelz with an "S" or "Z" and opted to listen to the community's support for Z.
It's all history from there, as they say.
Small But Mighty Diabetes Business
Emily says it's been great to find a way to make diabetes "a little less drab." But even more thrilling is the feedback from the community, from other people who feel just like her whom she gets to connect with about their own D-lives. Those connections have been amazing, she said, and that gives them both the energy to not only continue what they're doing with PumpPeelz but also find support in daily aspects of living with diabetes.
It's fascinating looking back on what started out as a class project, that eventually grew to their dining room table until they ran out of room, then renting space in the back of a consignment store for about a year, and eventually buying their own equipment and moving manufacturing operations to a commercial space. Now, they have 5 people working in their business to produce and ship orders, and PumpPeelz uses custom software and automation to get the orders out faster than ever in the past.
Like most diabetes businesses big and small, they hope to eventually go out of business. A cure? Not necessarily, although that's a hope, of course. Just better treatment options that are less obstructive than current insulin pumps would be a welcome development.
On the personal front, Emily had a healthy pregnancy and their son was born in October 2016. She's started teaching him a little about her diabetes, and that's been an adventure in itself.
"Chasing around a toddler can be exhausting with tons of lows, though they are less frequent and more manageable now and I've worked hard to keep my A1C lower over the past few years," she says. "He knows about my insulin pump, blood sugar and of course Peelz! He loves to spend time at the office with us and especially loves the printer. We also have been able to go on family vacations for the first time since we got married nearly six years ago thanks to our amazing employees who keep us afloat while we are away. It's been a busy few years but overall my health has never been better."
We've been huge fans of PumpPeelz over the years and it's great to see their small business and D-lives thriving!