(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a three-part series spotlighting a Knoxville entrepreneurial pioneer who is still focused on making life better for people nearly 60 years after his game-changing first invention.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Bergein F. (Gene) Overholt recalls being asked this question when he was in the third grade: “What do you want to be?” He answered quickly with a simple but powerful statement: “I want to be a physician like my dad and help people like he does.”
Seventy some odd years later and roughly 60 years after conceiving the flexible fibersigmoidoscope-colonoscope that has revolutionized gastroenterology, that’s exactly what he is still doing with a philosophy he learned decades ago, his strong Christian faith, and the commitment to and support of his family.
“If risk is involved, take it as long as you think what you are doing is right,” Overholt says, and that clearly describes several of his latest interests, all focused in one way or another on dealing with viruses and bacterial issues.
About five years ago while he was still a practicing Gastroenterologist, Overholt says he started seeing evidence of what he calls “very bad bacteria” that were resistant to antibiotics. One, for example, is referred to as CRE- that is shorthand for Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. CRE is part of a group of germs that live in the intestines of some people and can create problems for some. It was being transferred from patient to patient through a certain type of endoscope called a duodenoscope which is used to visualize the bile and pancreatic ducts.
“I got interested in seeing how we could prevent that through scope design, disinfectants, and disposable scopes,” Overholt said. “I was approached by a couple of “snake-oil” people, but fortunately did not get involved with them.”
Then, he met John Shanahan, Founder of GenEon Technologies. The company was based in San Antonio, but Shanahan and his wife lived in California. More important, however, were two facts: they were not happy in the high tax state and, as luck would have it, she had an uncle who lived in Tellico Plains.
As described in our recent teknovation.biz article about Ionogen LLC, Shanahan had worked over several decades with hypochlorous acid (HOCl), defined as nature’s oldest disinfectant. It is produced when an electrical current is applied to a solution of salt, water and vinegar. Shanahan owned the intellectual property, and Overholt saw a solution to address viruses and bacteria like CRE, COVID-19 and Clostridioides difficile, better known as C. diff.
Over a short period of time, they came together to found the rapidly growing start-up, Ionogen. Overholt is Chair of the Board, while Shanahan, who relocated to Knoxville, is President and Chief Executive Officer.
Now, the Gastroenterologist turned Entrepreneur has an even bigger vision and challenge he has taken on. “I want to take hypochlorous to Third World countries,” he says, explaining that the goal is to kill cholera and other bacteria in water so residents of these countries can improve their lives. “If you can start by improving their health, you can provide them an opportunity for a better life, but it all starts with health.”
Overholt’s plan is to focus initially on Haiti and to begin this year. The initiative is a step in addressing a much larger issue, specifically the prediction that the world will experience 10 million deaths a year by 2050 that are associated with antibiotic microbial resistance.
“This (project) might be the culmination of what I’ve tried to do to help people of the world,” he says in his humble way. “We have a product that will kill ‘super-bugs’ and not have bacterial resistance. That’s an exciting opportunity. I hope I maintain good health long enough to see it. If not, I will have helped start it.”
As we ended the interview, we returned to his early desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a physician.
“It goes back to the way I was brought-up by my parents,” Overholt says, adding a few simple but powerful words: “I’ve been so blessed to be able to help people.” Others might say they have been so blessed because he cares so much about people.