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From massage therapy to hospital wellness startup

Arundhati Parmar

Rachel Swardson simply felt that newborn babies should not be the only ones who get fussed over when they make their debut on the planet.

Armed with that concept, in June 2008, Swardson launched Go Home Gorgeous – a service that provides in-hospital massage therapy for postnatal women. The idea is that after delivering a baby, women would be offered a rejuvenating massage at the hospital so that they could go home feeling gorgeous.

Now, more than 14 hospital customers later, Swardson is eyeing an expansion. The Edina, Minnesota-basedmassage therapy company has blossomed into a wellness and massage therapy service renamed Bavia Health. It now also serves patients beyond the maternity ward, both men and women. The company will use a fresh infusion of cash to expand into the Midwest as well as the East Coast, especially New Jersey.

That infusion comes from a Bloomington, Minnesota-based venture fund that has committed $1 million to the business.

Back in January 2009, a mere five months after Swardson launched the company, Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina became the first hospital to sign on to her service.

“The birthplace market is very competitive and in order to make our hospital stand out we wanted a differentiator,” said Rachel Nelson, a spokeswoman for Fairview Southdale Hospital, in a phone interview. “Back then no (other hospital) was doing it.”

Nelson added that the feature is very popular and most importantly “very good for patient satisfaction ratings.”

That may well spell good news for Swardson’s business. The 2009 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has measures by which hospital reimbursement will be tied to patient satisfaction beginning with discharges in October 2012.

One satisfied customer is Shana Karle, whose co-workers gifted her a Bavia massage as a baby shower present two years ago when she had her son.

“It was truly memorable and a thoughtful gift,” she said. “I don’t make a point of going to the spa as often as I would like, so this was truly a treat. They come in with music and scents and candles and low lighting” and transform the hospital to a spa-like environment.

After Fairview Southdale Hospital signed a contract with Swardson, other Fairview hospitals and its area competitors also came on board. They include Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Methodist Hospital, St Louis Park, Minnesota; and St. Francis Hospital, Shakopee, Minnesota. Monmouth Medical Center, Long Branch, New Jersey, also provides Bavia’s massage therapy.

But three years ago, little did Swardson know that her business would gain traction so quickly.

“I thought it would take three years just to get inside one hospital,” and not five months Swardson said.

In fact when she launched the business at the precipice of one of the steepest recessions in history, she was so intimidated by all the negativity that she took extreme measures to remain sane: She took a kitchen scissor and cut her TV’s power cord, canceled her newspaper subscriptionand narrowly crafted her Google Alerts selection to only current medical news.

Now as her confidence has grown, she has been able to win the faith of investors likeOmphalos Venture Partners, the Bloomington, Minnesota fund that committed $1 million to the company in late March. Omphalos comprises three partners including Mark Marlow, its president, and has $20 million of their personal wealth to invest in great entrepreneurial ideas.Marlow is very bullish on Bavia’s prospects.

“We certainly believe there is a need for these sorts of services in the maternity wards of hospitals and husbands and families will be supportive of this,” Marlow said in a phone interview. “We invest in founders and Rachel has great energy and the company is in a pretty good position to execute on the business model.”

Of that money, $500,000 is available now. The rest is expected to come in August, provided the company meets revenue and expansion goals.

Bavia’s goal now is to firm up business beyond the maternity ward, a process that is already underway although the website is still being updated. Women who have produced still-born babies, women recovering from mastectomy and men healing from heart surgery have availed of Bavia’s massage therapy. In fact Fairview’s Nelson said that she hopes to provide the service to patients as they are undergoing chemotherapy.

Given the changed profile of patients, Swardson decided the original name – Go Home Gorgeous – “was no longer appropriate.”When hunting for a new name, Swardson decided to look at other languages. In the end she chose Bavia, which she understood meant beautiful in Hindi. (Swardson is slightly off. Bhavya, the word from which bavia is derived, is actually Sanskrit for magnificent/splendid.)

Bavia has four employees and has contracts with 35 massage therapists. The company hopes to raise $6 to $10 million in venture capital next year, Swardson said. Revenue is about $1 million.As she transforms the company into a national provider, Swardson hopes that Baviamassage therapies can replace traditional gifts offered to women after childbirth.

“People give flowers or balloons to show that they care but those end up in the trash,” Swardson said.

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