My first million: Marc Koska OBE, beach bum made good
Marc Koska of Stay Syringe tells MoneyWeek's Jody Clarke how his ethical vision for a disposable syringe helped him to make his first million.
At 23 years of age, Marc Koska was living an idyllic lifestyle as a self-confessed beach bum', sailing yachts around the Caribbean and generally having a good time. And although he had always thought he was destined to do something big, it took a trip back to the UK in 1984 to tell him what that something would be.
"I saw an article in The Guardian predicting the transmission of HIV through the re-use of syringes. And I thought, that's what I've been waiting for!" Doctors were re-using syringes, and people were being infected with wholly preventable diseases by people in which they had enormous faith. "It was a nightmare situation." So there and then he designed and put together a disposable syringe, which would automatically disable after its first use. Fast-forward 17 years from that seminal moment in May 1984, and Koska sold his first syringe after which there was no stopping him: he's since sold 700 million.
But it wasn't easy. The big manufacturers didn't want it to progress, he says, and the World Health Organisation in Geneva weren't much help either. They ignored the 23-year-old "dipstick" with a vision of a safe injection policy. Did they even say they liked the idea? "I don't know, they told me to bugger off!" he chuckles. He doesn't believe the market was ready for the product back then; as he says, he had to remove 100 bricks from his path to get to the stage today where his company, Star Syringe, is the biggest Auto Disable (AD) syringe manufacturer in the world.
And he did that by placing the company in a unique position of strength. "There are 600 syringe manufacturers in the world. The world doesn't need 601, all producing bad syringes." Some companies still are though, he laughs, with a few even attempting to mirror his own concept. But Koska's are still "cheaper, easier to use and give off no metal residue". And he doesn't regret the amount of time it took to get the company up and running, viewing the period as being a kind of apprenticeship. "We had many offers from people to float the company and to give us more money. But would that have guaranteed the future of the product? No. Would it have made us the biggest AD manufacturer? No."
Koska's company has also built strong relationships with its manufacturers in the developing world, taking only a 5% royalty on each syringe sold. The other 95% remains in one of the eight third-world countries in which Star Syringe manufacture their K1 and K3 syringes.
He also runs a not-for-profit organisation, SafePoint, whose aim it is to inform the public of the issues involved. This work has impressed governments and many ministries of health are taking notice of his company's good work. "For example, the Ugandan government has changed their policy and now says that only AD syringes should be used."
Does he believe his ethical vision has paid off? "In the long term, yes it has. You may win the battle, but not the war if you're unethical. "We've played it clean, that's why its taken us more years than others to get the business up and running."