CEO Connect with Deborah Duffey (Transcript)

Transcribed by Kelsey McDermott, TBBW intern

Deborah Duffey is president of Dermazone, chief executive officer at Kara Vita and chief operating officer at NuVessl. 

All told, this bundle of businesses has a valuation of $22 million and Duffey says she has a goal to increase that valuation to $70 million in four years. 

The portfolio of businesses started with Fountain Pharmaceuticals in 2001, when Duffey and her business partner, Joseph Schuchert, took the business private, and relaunched it as Dermazone. 

Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, interviewed Duffey in front of a live audience at the Rez Grill, located in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa. This transcript has been edited for length and brevity. 

What’s it been like for you to be a TBBW cover star?

Let me tell you something. The power of your cover, and TBBW, is unbelievable. I never prepared myself for what happened when that cover dropped. I kid you not. I have spent about an hour and a half to two hours, every day, responding to the amazing outreach and support. I’ve received emails, phone calls, texts, DMs on Instagram, DMs on LinkedIn. I’ve reconnected with so many wonderful former colleagues, local friends, people I’ve worked with all across the country and shockingly, international former business partners that have reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’m working someplace else. Let’s talk let’s have a zoom call.” So this has been an extraordinary gift. 

And since we met, we were issued a new patent, about 10 days ago. And it’s so exciting for us because we fought for two years, under examination, and it’s 3.0 on our nanotech delivery science. So it’s a big deal for us.

I might have to ask you to talk in “nanotech for dummies,” just so we can follow you because there were a lot of big words in there.

So nanotech used to be such a hard concept for me to talk about to anybody, including physicians, including a lot of scientists, because up until the Nano iPod, it wasn’t discussed other than in the nanotech community. And it’s hard to wrap your head around because a nanometer is 1/10 1,000s of a strand of hair. So it’s really, really small. And small can be really, really good. Because whether you’re putting it on topically to skin, it’s designed to keep things out, or whether you’re ingesting it, your body can take up whatever you’re trying to get into the body much quicker and better. It’s used in the pharmaceutical world a lot for self-delivery. And we’ve been working with different molecules with our nanotech for many years. So small is good, small is better.

You are entering the psychedelic space. What does that mean? 

We’re innovators, we’re product developers and we file patents every year, at least two or three applications. And we like to be on the forefront. We like to be pioneers. 

Five years ago, we entered the cannabis space, for medicinal reasons. We were so early on, we had to go to Jamaica and go to the University of West Indies to do our work, where we said, “Hmm, I wonder if we can use [cannabidiol, the active ingredient in marijuana] for medicinal reasons and [tetrahydrocannabinol] for medicinal reasons. And, essentially, make it work better in the body so that we could actually use less of the ingredients so that there’d be less side effects.”

So we did that. We got our data, we spun out another company Origin Scientific, that is a Canadian-based company. When the buzz started to come about, with magic mushrooms, a whole other species that’s never been studied, like cannabis had never been studied for 40 to 50 years. And nobody knew the value of that plant. It took me about a year before I got on board with, “Oh, there’s really something here.”

We partnered with a local company that has permits to work with such things. And what we’re doing is we’re encapsulating the psilocybin to, once again, get it to a point where we make it work so much smarter in the body that people can microdose it and use it in such small quantities, that we can make huge disruptive impacts for people suffering [post-traumatic stress disorder], alcoholism, drug addiction, general anxiety and severe depression. 

We all know suicides and fentanyl overdoses are killing people. And you said, “If when I die, if I can say that I helped people with anxiety and mental health issues, I will have made a difference in this world.” And that touched my heart. 

Our technology is so versatile that we work in the animal health field. We work in the dietary supplement fields. We’re working a little bit in the agricultural field we, of course, do prescription drug products and OTC products and we work in that space. But nothing resonates with me more because it’s such an epidemic in this country. 

If we can innovate something that can give people an opportunity to control the microdose of something natural and make a difference in their lives, so that they can live healthier and happier lives, and they’re not so challenged by these roadblocks. It will be the absolute pinnacle of anything I’ve ever done in my life. 

What’s the best advice you can offer about what you believe are core competencies for any entrepreneur or business leader?

I try to stress that entrepreneurism is, literally, managing change. The five-year plan, the end goal, the vision, most likely is going to shift. You have to be able to pivot. If there’s one word that I can drive home to people that are starting companies, and building companies, is you’re probably going to have to pivot, which means you’re always going to be rewriting, revising, rethinking your business plan. 

One of the things you talked about in your interview was how sometimes skincare is perceived to be superficial, but you told a story where you literally changed some people’s life. Talk about that. 

When we launched the Karavita company, which is our clinical skincare brand, it gave me an opportunity to travel a lot, which was a little tricky for my two daughters, growing up, because I was always on the road. I was always out, meeting our customers, meeting our sales consultants and listening. 

We would get hundreds of people in a room and then I would get amazing commentary and feedback. I’d hear people stand up and share how their mother went through terrible cancer or had chemotherapy and her skin was so brittle and our therapeutic lotions were the only thing that gave her comfort, or a family member had a third-degree burn and it was the only thing that gave them comfort from the itching skin. 

There was a woman at an event that came up to me and waited quite a while to be able to speak to me and said, “You changed my family’s life, you changed my daughter’s life. And I just want to share that with you.” She said she had severe cystic acne, she went to dermatologists for years, it’s an extremely difficult disease to treat. And for whatever reason, nothing worked. And we had an all-natural line, at the time, for acne that we used our technology to make this really tricky botanical work smart in the skin and it transformed her daughter’s skin. The daughter lived in the bedroom, didn’t come out didn’t go to events, because it shakes one’s confidence so badly. And the fact that the two years of research we did on that product line that we launched, we made such an impact for this mother and her child. I will never forget it. And I spent years researching the sole natural line because I was an acne sufferer. I had horrific acne as a teenager, I lived on antibiotics, which have all kinds of complications. And I said one day, if I have a chance, I’m going to develop something that isn’t caustic to the skin that can help. So when that came full circle to me, yeah, it was like waterworks. She and I were doing a lot of crying together.

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