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Profile of an Entrepreneur Learder: Tony Mariano

Rex the Talking Rx Bottle

Tony Mariano, Pharmacist
Rex Talking Bottles
Albany, New York

A disposable talking bottle that provides audible label information and makes information about medications more accessible to people who are elderly, visually and cognitively impaired, illiterate, or speak a different language.

How did you come up with the idea?
In 1995, when I was employed as Pharmacy Manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Albany, New York, I had the opportunity to meet a colleague on a car trip to an out of town meeting. This colleague, Randy Allnatt, was a Coordinator of Services for Veterans who were blind or visually impaired. Randy too was blind. On our trip we had a nice talk about many different topics and Randy shared with me a recent medical experience which was life threatening. Randy, who is a married father of 3, got up in the middle of the night and needed to take one of his medications. He inadvertently took the wrong medication and within a short period of time was at the hospital in tough shape. He was having a very serious medication incident. Fortunately he survived, but expressed his frustrations to me about being blind and not being able to distinguish one medication from another. He had come up with one solution which was to put rubber bands around his medicines – one for one type, two for another and so on. This would work only if he remembered how many rubber bands were on which medicines and if the rubber bands did not break.

Randy was very familiar with all types of gadgets and products available for persons who were blind or visually impaired. It was his job to get this type of assistive aid technology for the veterans. He was amazed that there was no product on the market, which would read his medication bottle to him. After all – clocks read him the time, cards even sang to him, but no technology was available for something as serious as medications!

What made you decide to pursue the idea?
It was that day that Randy and I both decided that we wanted to pursue a product that would help him and all others who needed such a device. I was never one to back down from a challenge, and Randy felt strongly that such a product would fill a large void.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to bring your idea to market?
We faced just about every obstacle we could face, with the most difficult one being money! Neither Randy nor I are wealthy people nor did we have the capital needed to fund such a product. It was through sheer determination and support of our families that we were able to slowly form a prototype, obtain some backers and get a product developed. At one point, my father mortgaged his house to get us the financing we needed! When all was done we had researched and developed 4 separate technologies and chosen one to take to the market.

Looking back on the early years, we are not quite sure how it all came together, but we're glad it did. After getting the product developed, studied, and "on the market" we did not have enough money to grow and get it out to a larger audience. In 2004, unable to get to the next level, we sold MedivoxRx, our company, to Wizzard Software Corporation, the firm that developed our synthetic speech for automated text to speech applications. The buy out was actually a perfect fit. We were looking to grow bigger and they were looking to acquire start-up companies that fit in with their strategic plan. We became a subsidiary of Wizzard and retain some control over our growth.

What is your background and how did that lead to your desire to bring a product to market?
As a young boy, my favorite day was Saturday, as that was the day I could get up early, race to the family basement and tinker in my Dad’s wood shop. I loved to build things and take them apart as well. I guess that is my earliest "inventing." I also have a very strong desire to help people. My family was big into community service. My dad a retired engineer from General Motors Corp just recently left the local volunteer ambulance group at the age of 80. My mother was on every committee, board or group that was available to her in our community. It was how we were all raised.

I first studied Aeronautical Engineering at St. Louis University but, due to a sluggish job market, I switched to Pharmacy. At St. John’s University in New York, I developed a love of the industry and the wonderful feeling of helping patients that came with the job.

I suppose another part of the equation was my own disability. I was born with a profound hearing loss and learned to read lips as a young child. I struggled through my early years of schooling and in High School was told that I would never go to college and I should "take up a trade." This rejection made me more persistent to "make something of myself" and prove that I could, and would, be successful. Maybe I should find that guidance counselor and thank them for making me so determined to reach my goals!

What advice would you give to others in this area?
Document and date your idea and then take it to an attorney or a legal firm that specializes in intellectual property rights. Have a thorough patent search conducted to determine if the idea has not already been patented. This includes also the unique and innovative manufacturing processes to produce the product.

Obtain copyrights and/or trade marks as appropriate to your inventions.

Establish a sound business plan and must be willing to commit an average of 5 to 7 years of hard work to get your product to the market.

Don't get discouraged would be my most important advice. We had so many promises that fell through, doors shut on us, and naysayers who did not think this would ever happen. Be a pest – ask people for money. Our original MedivoxRx investors, some who invested a few hundred or a few thousand dollars will continue to make money as the Rex Talking bottle grows. We structured the agreement with Wizzard to reward all those who invested with us when we were still a fledgling company. When, and if we become more successful, the original investors will profit as well.

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