Her child’s pain leads doctor to medical innovation

When Amy Baxter came up with Buzzy, a reusable product relying on cold and vibrations to make needle shots less painful and frightening, the pediatric emergency doctor couldn’t find anyone willing to turn it into a business. So Baxter, a mother of three, did it herself from the basement of her Atlanta home. So far, she and her six MMJ Labs employees have sold more than 36,000 of the little contraptions. Last year they wracked up $800,000 in revenue. Now, she’s about to get national exposure with the Feb. 28 airing of ABC’s Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs try to win backing from wealthy investors. Baxter, 44, isn’t allowed to disclose how she did on the show.

The first thing I ever made and sold was a painted rock at age four. (My parents) let me go door to door selling stuff that I made. We were in an apartment. I think I sold them for a nickel. “It’s a million-year old rock. It’s a good investment for a nickel.” I had no fear of anyone. All of that entrepreneur stuff was there in spades. In high school I did Junior Achievement.

Everyone wants to please their parents. What pleased my parents and particularly my father was my entrepreneurial endeavors. I was passionate about being a doctor. As early an age as I was selling things door to door, I was sitting on the stoop with Mercurochrome and a Band-Aid, hoping somebody got hurt so I could be the one to fix it. I liked service.

(In high school) in calculus I found myself getting a C. I thought, “I need this if I’m going to be a doctor. But if I’m in business I don’t need calculus. So I’m going to drop calculus.” I went to Dartmouth having decided not to be a doctor.

But her first year at college she got involved in a program as a health liaison for students in dorms. She realized she still loved medicine.

I took calculus the next semester. I got an A. I told my dad, “I’m not going to go in the family business with you. I’m going to be a doctor.” Every person you change and you touch stays with you and makes you feel like your time on earth is valuable.

She became a pediatric emergency room doctor. She also did research on pain management.

When my kid went to get his four-year-old shot I knew the textbook answers for what I should do to make his shots be better. At the doctor’s office all the things that I had prepared didn’t help the fact that the nurse said, “You are going to sit there and be still or this is really going to hurt.” She just whaled in, jabbing on my kid to give him his shots. He became so afraid of needles that he would get nauseated whenever we had to go to the doctor. I started doing more research into the fear of needles and realized it doesn’t go away by itself. Not only is it a stigma in our society, but it ends up with people not going to the doctor when they are older. Things get diagnosed much later in people who are afraid of needles than in people who aren’t.

She began tinkering to create a product to cut pain and fear tied to needles. An early attempt combined a personal massager — certain vibrations can have a numbing effect — with frozen peas, a pain-reducing trick her husband had learned in the Boyscouts. She and her kids took apart old cellphones donated by neighbors, looking for ways to use the mechanisms that allowed the phones to vibrate. She tested her inventions on herself, her kids and her neighbors, using toothpicks instead of needles.

I couldn’t imagine starting and running my own company. Being an entrepreneur is scary and overwhelming and time-consuming. I assumed that when I had this idea that someone would grab it immediately. I was messing around with soldering and trying to make prototypes. We came up with (the name) “Buzzy” because the personal massager vibrated and buzzed. We made a little face for it. I started more seriously looking into patenting, putting a company around it and have someone else licensing and make it. (But) while I thought it was a brilliant idea, people didn’t realize that needle phobia was important. My mantra of “shots shouldn’t have to hurt” didn’t resonate very well with most adults that weren’t afraid of needles.

My kids had already been using it (Buzzy) for their shots, so we knew that it worked. But I would hear a kid crying in the hospital and I would want to run in and go, “I’ve got this that is going to solve your problem.” Of course, you can’t take a little thing you’ve made in your basement and has electrical tape and is stuck together and use it in a real hospital.

My husband (a psychiatrist) said, “How many people do you think can help? How hard could this be. Take two or three years and you can at least get something out there, and if people use it, that’s great. And then you are done and you won’t constantly be feeling guilty that you could have made a difference and you didn’t.”

She got positive feedback from people in the medical device industry, except all said that to turn a profit she would have to make her product disposable, so she could generate more sales. Baxter said she considered that option wasteful.

I decided to make it myself. I just got stubborn. An important thing for the entrepreneurs that are successful is being too stupid to give up at a certain time. There were many times when I was frustrated and felt like giving up. Some of the resolve comes from your fear of letting other people down.

When you are not trained in a field you can feel like you are groping around in the dark not even having the language to ask the right questions.

She landed a $1.1 million grant from the government’s National Institutes of Health to help with research and development. Later, she took her product to medical industry trade shows to get health care workers interested. Then hospitals bought in, followed by patients who heard about Buzzy from doctors and then bought from the company’s website. The basic product sells for $39.95. While Baxter said she and her husband have personally put $120,000 into the business, the steeper cost has been the time. She figures she works 80 hours a week on her company and another 10 in her role as a doctor.

If she had realized it would take 10 years to come this far, would she have done it?

No. I’m so glad that I did it in retrospect. But if you told me how hard it was going to be, that would have been a sacrifice I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have made when I still had three small kids in the house.

In September she filmed her run on ABC’s Shark Tank, with investors deciding whether to buy a piece of her company.

I practiced my opening pitch. I practiced it standing on my head. I practiced it standing on one foot. I practiced speed talk. I wanted to make sure there was no physical environment that would dissuade me from telling my pitch the way I wanted to tell it.

I would love someone to take the reins of the business part. What I’d really like to do is get a lab where I could go further in understanding pain. What I have learned already with Buzzy convinces me that shots shouldn’t have to hurt. There is a way to completely block needle pain. Buzzy doesn’t block needle pain completely for everyone. Different ages and different races and skin tone makes a big difference in how much needle pain you feel. That research nobody is doing, and I’ve got the background to do it.

Baxter’s comments were edited for length and clarity.

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