Profiting by doing good

Death: An idealistic Columbia woman is pushing a product that she believes can save thousand of lives from deadly dehydration.

February 07, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Charlene B. Riikonen dreams of the day her company's packets of a powdered electrolyte drink are commonly found in the medicine cabinets of America -- and in the wilds of Bangladesh and Uganda.

Riikonen is co-founder and president of closely held Cera Products Inc., which markets electrolyte products that help people avoid serious illness and death from fluid and electrolyte loss through diarrhea and other afflictions.

Several hundred children die annually in the United States from diarrheal dehydration, most in rural areas with poor health services. Worldwide, an estimated 4 million to 5 million people die annually from dehydration.

"It's the silent killer you never hear about," says Riikonen.

Her answer is CeraLyte, a powdered drink developed with the help of two Johns Hopkins University researchers.

The rice-based powder, which contains seven times the potassium and four times the sodium as Gatorade, can be mixed with water, Kool-Aid, tea or other fluids to make an electrolyte solution that quickly restores the bodily fluids and chemical balance.

Initially developed for adult use, CeraLyte also comes in a formulation for children.

Despite a huge market -- there are an estimated 50 million to 100 million cases of diarrhea annually just in the United States -- it's been tough going for Riikonen and the Jessup company she helped launch in 1993.

But the Columbia resident says the prospect of saving lives makes the quest worthwhile.

"I'm interested in making a difference, not just a dollar," said Riikonen, who saw firsthand how dehydration can cause severe illness and death during a three-year stint in Bangladesh with an international health group.

Cera Products is tiny compared to the giants in the electrolyte drink market for children and athletes. Abbott Laboratories' Pedia- Lyte dominates the children's market with a 90 percent share, while Mead Johnson's InfaLyte has about 8 percent.

Gatorade, also used for rehydration, is the undisputed champion of the sports drink market with more than $1.3 billion in world sales in 1998.

Despite such rivals, Riikonen, a former University of Maryland public relations administrator, has built a customer list that includes Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the Mayo Clinic, Tufts University Medical Center, Dartmouth College's Hitchcock Medical Center, and St. Luke-Roosevelt Hospital in New York.

The company reached the break-even point last year on sales of about $700,000, said Riikonen. That might not seem like a lot, but it's light years ahead of the company's first-year sales of $6,800 in 1996.

While the executive has a command of company sales growth figures and distribution agreements -- the company contracts for the manufacturing of its products and relies on medical supply companies to help sell them -- few subjects get her more excited than stories of CeraLyte helping sick people feel better.

They included the severely dehydrated children treated by Hopkins doctors in Uganda and a Louisiana woman bedridden from short bowel syndrome. The woman wrote the company a lengthy letter describing how she'd been listless with dehydration after surgery until using CeraLyte. The drink, she said, got her back to work within days.

`Helping people'

"To me, it's those kind of stories that tell me we have the right products and are doing the right thing. We're making money while helping people," said Riikonen.

The health group that employed Riikonen in Bangladesh in the 1980s found that one of the best treatments for diarrheal dehydration was oral rehydration therapy, or ORT. Local health workers and villagers could be taught easily how to mix a batch of a rehydration formula that was developed in 1971 to treat the millions of sick and dying refugees that fled the Bangladesh-Pakistan war.

Riikonen and Dr. William B. Greenough III, a Johns Hopkins gerontologist and international health expert for whom she worked in Bangladesh, began trying to develop an advanced ORT solution that would work faster and better than the glucose-based solutions.

"We came up with a lot of things that when you mixed them with water, the powder sort of just floated right to the top and stayed there," recalls Riikonen. "It took a lot longer than we initially thought to come up with something that was drinkable and that worked."

It took almost three years.

Greenough and a Hopkins colleague, Dr. David Sack, focused on a rice-based mix that became the foundation for Cera's line of products.

Through experiments, Greenough and Sack said they found that long-chain carbohydrates in rice speed the absorption of fluid and electrolyte salts into the body's cells.

Today, medical institutions such as Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic use CeraLyte to treat patients suffering from severe diarrhea. Some also use it to treat elderly patients and dehydration cases stemming from cancer, AIDS and inflammatory bowel diseases.

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