SEVEN DAYS: First of all, why Vermont?
MICHEL LAJEUNESSE: I have family in Montreal and I knew this area from my early days. Also, we recognized that the main interest in fertility products is in the U.S. Fifteen percent of the population is infertile.
SD: What are the reasons for that?
ML: People wait longer to start families, and there are more infections and more environmental factors.
SD: How do infertile couples find out about Sperm Select?
ML: This would be the first step after a woman sees her gynecologist and drags her husband along. She says, "We have a problem." He says, "No, we don't have a problem." The doctor then tests to see whose problem it is, the woman's or the man's. If the man's sperm count isn't low, it might be that the cervix is not functioning properly.
SD: How does your therapy work?
ML: The kit includes HA and a glucose-based substance, which works as an energy source for sperm. They're mixed together in a vial along with the sperm. In a small incubator -- manufactured for us in Ferrisburgh -- the mixture is kept at 37 degrees centigrade, the body temperature, for 45 minutes. The sperm feels at home, as if in the cervix. Good, motile sperm will swim to the top of the vial. We have specialized syringes and needles for the insemination process. The entire procedure takes about one hour.
SD: Was there any resistance to this innovation?
ML: In 1990, the main obstacle was the misinformation of doctors. It was taken for granted that everything had to be done at labs. Fifteen years later, most gynecologists do fertility treatments in their offices. Our kit is pretty much considered the standard. The cost is only a few hundred dollars, instead of thousands. There are other, more time-consuming products on the market, but no kits. We have the patent on HA.
SD: Is there a chance another
company could compete?
ML: I suspect that will happen someday. That's one reason we've been diversifying.
SD: What else do you do?
ML: We have three different types of catheters. We've branched out from infertility to make mechanisms that collect cells from the uterus, so doctors can check for diseases like cancer. I started Prince Medical in 1996 with a French partner to manufacture all our products except Sperm Select. [Select Medical Systems] manufactures that, but we distribute all the products produced by Prince. Recently, we've also begun distributing products for the gynecology field that we don't manufacture ourselves. All these other things now represent 50 percent of the business.
SD: So you're always exploring new directions?
ML: Yes. Physicians come to us all the time with ideas. We look at the feasibility, the competition and the market. We have a lot of products in the pipeline at the moment.
SD: Like what?
ML: A doctor in Virginia invented two of them: the Endo-Cervical Electrode, which removes cancer cells with an electric current. It's less invasive and more accurate than previous methods. And the EZ-HSG Catheter, which plugs the outflow of saline solution while doing ultrasound to look for abnormalities in the uterus. Previous catheters of this type used inflated balloons, which tend to pop out. Ours has a bit of foam that keeps the liquid from leaking.
SD: When are these products being introduced?
ML: The electrode was two months ago. The catheter is out next week. They're actually manufactured in China, but we are the sole distributors.
SD: How big an operation do you have here?
ML: Only seven full-time staff, which includes my wife Monique Girard, who built the company with me. We met in Sweden, where she also worked for Pharmacia. She's now in charge of our production and regulatory affairs. But we both do everything, from research to taking out the garbage.
SD: Well, that seems like the less glamorous side of the job. What are the satisfactions?
ML: Creatively finding solutions to problems. And it's a great feeling to realize your wife, your daughter or your friends have these options. Even people I know have used our catheters or our kit and gotten pregnant.
SD: Is it strange to contemplate the impact of your work? In a sense, you're an anonymous parent to so many.
ML: I never thought of that, but you're right. When I was starting out in this business, people used to call me the Sperm Man.