Categories: Innovate

St. Pete’s DefenderShield gains traction on mobile device protection products

There’s a flip side to the speed, efficiency and convenience of cell phones, laptops and other electronics, according to a St. Petersburg technology company.

The devices most people use every day emit low levels of electromagnetic radiation, or EMF, that can have serious health consequences, said Daniel DeBaun, co-founder and CEO of DefenderShield.

The company makes radiation shielding technology for electronic devices. It has grown from making a single product for laptops when it was founded in 2011 to a full product line and global ecommerce sales, and it has plans to expand its product offerings next year.

With eight employees, DefenderShield moved in February into about 5,000 square feet in an industrial building in the Old Southeast neighborhood that serves as both headquarters and distribution center. The company is already outgrowing the space, DeBaun said.

DeBaun has bootstrapped the company with no outside investors. He didn’t disclose revenue but described sales growth as a hockey stick pattern: “We were down low and now we’re going up.”

Studies

DefenderShield was launched when DeBaun’s wife raised concerns about their son’s use of a laptop, fearing it would hurt his ability to have children. DeBaun started investigating the issue and found studies that showed a link between low-level EMFs and negative biological effects, including a 2011 study by the World Health Organization that characterized cell phone emissions as “possibly carcinogenic.”

Some additional studies since then have backed up those findings; other studies have not, according to a report on cell phones and cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, with physical and psychological symptoms, also has been associated with the use of wireless technology, although a Sept. 25 report in Psychology Today said there’s not enough scientific data to establish a link.

In August, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that measured radiofrequency radiation raised questions about whether cellphones always meet safety standards set up to protect the public.

“If you are a researcher there’s more than enough data for you to be at the very least cautious,” DeBaun said. “You have the research side talking about the elevated exposures and risks to the body. On the other hand you have the $1 trillion gross revenue [cell phone] industry that spends a little money on maintaining their position.”

Still, he doesn’t expect people to give up their devices.

“He’s not going to throw his laptop away,” DeBaun said referring to his son, Ryan DeBaun, who is co-founder and chief operating officer of DefenderShield. “He’s on there all the time, so let’s figure out how we can co-exist.”

Right combination of materials

DeBaun, a retired mechanical engineer who worked at Bell Labs and AT&T, decided to find a solution after his wife raised her initial concerns. During his career, he worked on electromagnetic interference between electronics, so he was familiar with materials that could be used to protect humans. Developing the first product, DefenderPad for laptops, was a matter of trial and error.

“You go through alloys, various types of technologies that are on the market that have not been applied to shielding the body, but have been used historically in shielding,” DeBaun said. “It was just a matter of finding the right combinations of materials to make sure it would shield those emissions.”

DefenderShield contracted with a local manufacturer to make the first laptop shields. It took a year to sell the first 1,000 DefenderPads, which sold primarily in Europe, DeBaun said.

Then, the company started getting requests for other products, said Ryan DeBaun. But there was a problem.

“DefenderPad was straightforward. You could put shielding between plastic,” Ryan DeBaun said. “But people wanted cellphone cases, which tend to go on the back, and the radiation you want to protect from is on the front. We couldn’t figure out how to make the products out of plastic, because most plastic cases go on the back and that defeats the purpose. But then we found these wallet cases, and we realized we could put shielding in the front covers and use them like that.”

DeBaun held up a phone, with the front cover of the case over the phone, so that the shielding was between the phone and his head. Users can speak and hear as usual with no effect on voice or sound quality because the microphone is unobstructed on the bottom of the phone and there’s a small opening over the ear speaker, according to DefenderShield’s website.

That realization was the key to making other products, he said.

Worldwide business

While DefenderPad, the laptop shield, is made locally, other products, such as cellphone and tablet cases, earbuds and a blanket for pregnant women, are made in China. DefenderShield is absorbing the 20 percent tariff on metals used in the products, although it cuts into the company’s margins, Dan DeBaun said.

“If we wanted to stay in the U.S., we’d go out of business,” he said. “We are a world company. We are doing commerce worldwide. That obligates us to manage our business from a worldwide perspective. We go where we can find the products, the materials, the technologies to solve our business problem worldwide.”

The company sells products primarily through its website and Amazon.com, said Kylen Ribeiro, vice president of sales and marketing. It also has distributors, and Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are the largest international markets.

DeBaun is a frequent guest on podcasts. Michelle Klein, content marketing manager, writes blogs, mostly focused on research. The company partners with key influencers on social media.

Dan and Ryan DeBaun co-authored a book, Radiation Nation: The Fallout of Modern Technology, that is described as a complete guide to EMF radiation safety.

“We try to educate people as much or more than sell products,” Ribeiro said. “Our main customer base is people interested in health and wellness, and we are the experts and we want to communicate information to people — whether or not they buy our products — that there are other things you can do to protect yourself and reduce exposure to emissions. When Dan is on podcasts and in interviews, he doesn’t even talk about products, he talks about the issue and the facts and science and studies. If they want to buy our products, that’s great. But there are easy simple things to do which don’t involve our products.”

Margie Manning

Margie started her journalism career as a radio news reporter in St. Louis, before putting down her microphone and picking up a pen to work at the St. Louis Business Journal. Unable to resist the call of warm weather and beaches, Margie took an entrepreneurial detour to run an ice cream shop in Treasure Island with her husband. Before joining the Catalyst, Margie spent 14 years at the Tampa Bay Business Journal where she wrote about business successes, failures and the exciting world of innovation and start-ups. Her writing coaches are Bonnie the Dog and Coffee the Cat, joined recently by a new edition, Jack the Cat. Margie can be contacted at margie@stpetecatalyst.com

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