On-Belay Medical: From Industry to Ministry

by Elizabeth Hofheinz, M.P.H., M.Ed., February 12, 2020

“Dad, feel my chest,” said Luke Slaughter to his father, Mark. And with those words the lives of both Luke and Mark would forever change, as would the lives of thousands of needy individuals. 

Mark Slaughter: “It was September 15, 2011. The ER doctor was at the football field and after feeling Luke’s chest he said, ‘I can’t even take his pulse…it so fast. Go to the hospital!’”

While Mark Slaughter’s heart was skipping beats, he would soon learn that his son’s was racing at 245 beats per minute.

“For three hours the medical team tried multiple ways to slow his heart down. With nothing working, they decided to flatline him for eight seconds. That was successful and his heart began settling back into a normal rhythm. While most of us have two cardiac nodes, Luke, we learned, had a third one, thus confusing his heart.”

Slaughter turned to the Almighty.

“During that five-hour ordeal I told God, ‘If you give me my son back and I will serve you.’”

And On-Belay was born.

Asked why “On-Belay,” Mark Slaughter says, “If two people are rock climbing there is a carabiner and two ropes. If I fall, one of those ropes is going to secure me. For quite some time, I had not been enthralled with the medical device industry. There are some fine people in our industry. But almost everywhere I looked there seemed to be a seedy underbelly of greed.”

There must be a better way, thought Slaughter.

Keeping his promise, within 90 days this grateful father had quit his job and started a company that was structured to convert revenue streams into philanthropy. “It dawned on me that I might figure out a way to convert revenue streams in this industry. Walt Disney famously said, ‘Observe the masses and do the opposite and you will have a happy successful life.’ With virtually everyone in the industry around my age being so miserable and burnt out from chasing green paper, I decided to do the opposite…give money away.”

Guided by the Bible verse Luke 6:38, “Give and it shall be given back to you in good measure,” Slaughter went all in on his mission.

“Initially I created a foundation that was separate from the company with the intent on self-funding it in that way. That changed, we’ll say accidentally, when my wife and daughter decided to go on a mission trip to Africa. Just before their departure the group leader—who had been to Uganda 25 times—asked me to lunch. It turns out that he was the regional president of the National Christian Foundation (NCF). He said, ‘Mark, I love what you are trying to do but it will never work.’”

“But all was not lost, as this man told me, ‘You should give away your company but not your money.’ He laid out a plan whereby I would donate 1/3 of the company’s financial units to their nonprofit and thus they would have legal ownership of those particular funds. The idea was not to distribute profits quarterly, but rather monthly, thus creating a fluid giving stream on pre-tax dollars.”

At one point, Knoxville, Tennessee-based On-Belay was on the edge, says Slaughter. “We were about to ‘go under’ when I became aware of a cystic fibrosis fundraiser. Desperate to garner attention for the company, I actually borrowed money to become the title sponsor of the event. It was because of that event that I met Dr. Josh Miller, a neurosurgeon at the University of Tennessee.  He became our first surgeon customer; we supplied him with implants, and then through the NCF, he received advisory privileges of monthly distributions for charitable use. He took on a project to measure the human impact of On-Belay, assessing the philanthropic benefit to the community. Dr. Miller determined that in one month, On-Belay provided 1,300 meals, nearly 426 overnight stays at a homeless shelter, and safe water for 50 people in Uganda for 10-20 years.”

Back to “the masses” of the medical device world. Mark Slaughter: “While everyone is busy focusing on the creation of technologies, that isn’t the only place where the opportunities are…they are in creating distribution models that can become disruptive. Our shareholders are the approximately 50 nonprofits that we support worldwide. Surgeons are not paid to use our products, nor do they receive other material benefits. But there is a bonus for surgeons: they can direct the giving and it feels good to them.”

Citing, “Don’t bring water…fix the pump” as his philosophy, Mark Slaughter works with Africa Renewal Ministries (ARM) in Uganda. “We are employing people through ARM to act as device reps—reps who don’t sell but just support our efforts. They will manage and deliver the implant inventory, support the surgeries, and help the hospital manage inventory.  I’m not sure if the American business model will ever work in Uganda, a country with 44 million people and four spine surgeons. We are working with our primary contact there, Dr. Martin Nkundeki, to create a model from within. I think it is vital to help existing organizations and create a system where there are share resources, surgeons, and ideas that can be fine-tuned into something sustainable.”

John Hicks, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon with EmergeOrtho in Hendersonville, North Carolina, is an avid fan of the On-Belay model. He states, “My primary involvement with On-Belay is as a customer. They act as a distributor for orthopedic spinal implants that I routinely use in surgeries. These implants are essentially the same as those available from other for-profit distributors. Unlike for-profit distributors, however, the profit generated goes back to support causes in my community and around the world.”

“Beyond our day to day work, I have had the opportunity to go to Uganda with On-Belay for an initial trip to assess needs and possible interventions that could be of benefit to the community using surgeon and industry resources.”

Asked what about the model truly works, Dr. Hicks notes, “It really is pretty straightforward. Because many of the financial units/shares were donated to the National Christian Fund, On-Belay must distribute their margin or ‘profit.’ They act as a device distributor just like any other distributor. There is no smoke or mirrors that I have seen. I get the same support in the operating room. My patients receive the same implants and products. But the community is able to benefit.”

“This year I surpassed the $100,000 of donation marked through On-Belay. I thought it was pretty amazing that organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, child and family resources, local schools and scouting programs were able to benefit substantially. I am doing my job the same way, but I am working with a company that thought out of the box to create more value from the practice of orthopedics.”

To put a fine point on On-Belay, Mark Slaughter points to Victoria Hale, Ph.D., Chair Emeritus of The Institute for OneWorld Health and Founder of Medine360, who said, “Business models are human creations, just as technology is. So we innovate the heck out of technology. Well, let’s do it with business models too.”

That explains On-Belay.

Fundamentally, the company draws strength from Luke 6:38: “Give and it shall be given back to you.”

Mark Slaughter: “That’s my kind of business plan.”

Josh Sandberg

Josh Sandberg is the President and CEO of Ortho Spine Partners and sits on several company and industry related Boards. He also is the Creator and Editor of OrthoSpineNews.

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