Evelyn Smith of Corvallis had two things in 1962 that helped to change the world: small children and a yard full of poison oak.
The wife of chemist Robert Smith, a former executive with Mead Johnson, Evelyn was tired of the two youngest of her five children coming in from the yard and developing itchy rashes. So she went out one day and, barehanded, yanked up each plant.
She cleaned up with a waterless skin cleanser originally meant to remove the radioactive dust from nuclear fallout. It had been sitting around the house since Robert had invented it. Afterward, she told a neighbor about her efforts.
The neighbor wanted to know: Did the poison oak affect her, too?
Actually, Evelyn said, it hadn’t. Later, she told her husband about the yardwork and mentioned the cleanser.
According to Tec Labs lore, Robert initially brushed off the whole incident as a case of “puny” poison oak, not nearly as potent as the plants in their native Iowa. To prove it, he rubbed a patch on his arm.
Gary Burris, Tec Labs’ director of public relations, doesn’t have on record whether Robert ended up saying anything along the lines of, “I’m sorry, dear, you were right.”
But his arm did break out in a rash. And he did test the cleanser on a new patch of skin.
And that’s how Tec Labs’ signature product, Tecnu, was born.
Robert found the product kept the oil in both poison oak and poison ivy from bonding with skin, which meant it not only kept the rash from spreading, but could keep it from forming in the first place.
Out of the garage
Over the next nearly four decades, Tecnu helped Tec Laboratories grow from its home in the Smith garage in Corvallis to a 58,000-square-foot building in Albany. It now employs 35 people full time; more during the summer season.
The pharmaceutical manufacturer now has six products under the flagship Tecnu brand, and another three under its increasingly popular LiceFreee line.
Burris estimates Tec Labs has sold some 53.3 million units of its various products since 1977, and can find its products in more than 47,000 stores. Chief Executive Officer Steve Smith — Robert’s son and brother of Vernon Smith, the company’s vice president of operations — is proud to note at least one Tec Labs product is on the shelf of every chain drug store in the United States.
Steve Smith is careful about giving away any plans for future products, but the company is always on the lookout for new ideas.
Anytime Tec Labs hears from a customer who’s pleased with one of its products, Steve said, “We’ll ask, ‘What other problems do you have?’ We’ll see if there’s an opportunity there. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t.”
Burris said every employee who goes to a conference or a trade show is asked to come back with a list of 10 ideas, maybe about something impressive they saw, or maybe about a perceived gap in possible service.
Regulatory Affairs Director Wendy Langley is one of those employees, although her idea came from first-hand experience.
In the late 1990s, Langley was among moms struggling with the bane of elementary school classrooms everywhere: head lice.
Available products at that time were runny, smelled like bug spray and didn’t even work, as far as Langley was concerned. “I thought there just had to be another way.”
Research took her to a folk remedy centered on sodium chloride: table salt. She worked to formulate the salt into a gel that would hold its place on a child’s head, a concoction that became LiceFreee.
The product immediately took off, but Langley didn’t stop thinking about ways to improve. A spray-on solution would be even easier to use, she thought, and might even work more effectively.
“And I tried it in the lab, and it did, and I thought, cool,” she remembered. Three years ago, LiceFreee hit the market.
Poison oak is a North American peeve, Steve Smith said, but lice is a problem worldwide. That’s part of the reason he’s working on taking Tec Labs solutions to an international level.
Burris said Tec Labs builds its whole culture on looking at the big picture, both for the care of its customers and its employees.
“The one thing we do is look at problems that are driving everyone crazy, that we can solve better than anyone else has,” he said. “We’re looking at symptom-driven ailments. If we can solve it better, for a good price, it really is amazing to people.”
It all goes back to Evelyn, he said: “If it wasn’t for a mom trying to protect her kids, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Contact Jennifer Moody at email@example.com.