Peter Borten (DAOM 2009 and MAcOM 2000), LAc, has “always been a mad scientist type.” Looking around the waiting room at northwest Portland’s Dragontree Holistic Day Spa (one of four locations), it’s a description that appears to fit. The plush, jewel-toned room sparkles with dozens of small bottles of this and that—Dragontree Honey Milk Bath, Dragontree Apothecary Fertility Formula—and offers dozens of beauty products and herbal concoctions to browse through while waiting for a massage or acupuncture treatment.
Borten’s background in herbal medicine began with a school report on acupuncture when he was 12 years old. Growing up in Salem, MA, he fostered his interest in alternative healing by browsing the local witchcraft stores and poring over books on medicinal herbs. Though he started the University of Massachusetts as a psychology major, he soon changed his focus to botany. The switch prompted his attendance at a lecture, during which the professor received an acupuncture treatment in front of 600 students. That experience, along with a passion for yoga and reiki, led Borten to Chinese medicine and to OCOM.
Though he had seen it in action, Borten had not received an acupuncture treatment before applying to OCOM, and he had never been to Portland. Still, he was drawn to the fact that OCOM’s program required more hours of study than others, and the coursework turned out to be an excellent fit for Borten’s focus on herbs and qigong. After graduating from the master’s program in 2000 and working in his spa, Borten returned to OCOM, receiving a doctoral degree in 2008.
Borten credits his wife as the entrepreneur in the family—the two of them share the business, which she started on her own when she was a 23-year-old massage therapist—but together they are the driving force behind the income-generating product lines, which he says “allow me to practice the way I want to practice” without having to focus on the financial aspects.
Curious to learn more about Borten's path to creating a successful product line? Read his Q & A below:
Tell us about your products.
We have numerous products. Our herbal patch (or plaster) called Imbue has a very high-quality plant based adhesive, which makes it much less likely to cause skin irritation or rashes than traditional Chinese plasters. We get rave reviews about it from users and practitioners. We have an herbal bath for pain. We have an oil for breaking down scars. We have a nasal oil for
alleviating nasal and sinus problems. We have lotions, shower gels, luffa soap, exfoliating scrubs, milk baths and salt baths. And we have a line of condition specific herbal tinctures.
When treating someone for pain, I will apply my liniment (Muscle Melt) or one of my patches (Imbue) and then they can buy more when they leave. Or, depending on whatever else they're dealing with, I might recommend one of the tinctures in our line. I formulated them from Chinese herbs with a few Western herbs. They address things like anxiety, insomnia, digestive upset, PMS, and a variety of other issues. As practitioners know, the best formula is one that's written to specifically address the presenting pattern, so these formulas are more general, but in many cases they're appropriate and very effective.
What is the production process like?
Originally, I made the liniment and tinctures out of my house by myself. I built two large presses for extracting the tincture, and we have some large herb grinders. After a while, it became too big of a process, so now I have employees doing most of the creating. The patches we have made to our specifications by a family-run factory we have a relationship with in Taiwan. The body care products are made at a dedicated third party facility. We specify the formulations and supply some of the specialized ingredients, such as the essential oils, ourselves.
How and or why did you decide to create this product?
I started making liniments to use on my patients. I liked a lot of the Chinese liniments that were available, but felt I could make better formulations. I have gone through dozens of recipes over the pastfifteen years. I got secret formulas from martial artists, and I learned about specialized orthopedics formulas in the OCOM doctoral program. All of these informed the recipes I developed. Plus, I incorporated essential oils, which I feel have great potential to enhance liniments, but are underutilized by most manufacturers. Chinese liniments usually contain some combination of menthol, camphor, and methyl salicylate, plus maybe some herbs. The tinctures, also, I started making at home partly because I just love concocting things, and partly because I thought they could help my patients. As for the body care products, looking at a lot of the products out there, you can tell the formulators really don't know anything about the herbal ingredients, and there are a lot of toxic chemicals that are regularly included. We wanted to make something where every single ingredient was totally safe, and the scents were unique. It was also a valuable way to grow our brand. We had two spas at the time and it seemed like the natural next step.
How does where you are now with your product compare to what you initially thought it would become?
In the case of the patch, Imbue, I actually thought it would be selling much more at this point than it is. We ran into a tremendous amount of difficulty with the FDA and were targeted by a large competing brand. We were also a bit naive to think that all you need is a great product and then you'll sell millions. There is so much to do on the marketing side - I had no idea what I was getting into. The website development, order fulfillment, credit card processing, advertising, trade shows... it's a massive undertaking. At this point it's doing pretty well - it's in Whole Foods in a few regions, though by far our biggest customer base is acupuncturists, chiropractors, naturopaths, and physical therapists. The other products, though, have performed better than we expected. We have a lot of interest from other spas, certain retail stores, and we're about to begin a big marketing campaign for the whole line.
Do you have any advice for fellow alumni looking to put a product on the market?
Just make sure first that you are okay with being a salesperson and marketer as your job. At least for the first several years, it needs a strong, committed push, and nobody is going to care as much about it as you do, so you have to be willing to dedicate a huge amount of time and a huge amount of energy to learning about marketing, using social media, packaging, sales, shipping, distribution, etc. You have to be thick skinned, because it's likely that you'll get a lot of doors slammed in your face (figuratively). If you're planning to sell anything that comes under the FDA's jurisdiction, do your research. There's a lot to learn. It's a good idea to have a lawyer who specializes in these things. Write a business plan. The more planning you do, including market research, the better off you'll be. But if all of this sounds like an adventure to you and you have a great product, go for it! Unless you have a big chunk of money saved up, start small and plan to grow organically.
What experiences inspired you to follow a career path in acupuncture and Chinese medicine?
I did a report on acupuncture at age 12 or 13 and interviewed people about their experiences with it. There weren't many people around in the mid 1980s who had tried it, but those I talked to had rave reviews.