“Okay, you’re going to sit there and be still—or this is really going to hurt,” Amy Baxter recalls a gruff nurse telling her four-year-old son Max, before giving him a shot. He sat still and didn’t say a word, but cried afterward. Walking back to the car, he threw up. “He was quiet and stunned—definitely upset all day,” says Baxter. An unlikely start to a $1,000,000 one-person business. But the experience left her son terrified of needles, so Baxter, 44, an Atlanta pediatrician and mother of three, decided to do something to ease his pain. Noticing that her hands became numb after driving a car with a vibrating steering wheel, she decided to create a device that would diminish the discomfort when children got shots.
Tinkering at home with vibrating cell phone coin motors, and applying frozen bags of peas to enhance the numbing effect, she came up with a device that combined an ice pack and vibrating motor, which parents and caregivers could apply to the site of an injection to diminish the pain. Her husband, Louis Calderon, a child psychiatrist, drew the face of a bee on the prototype that would eventually become her product, Buzzy. While Baxter was reluctant to take time away from her medical practice, he persuaded her to try to manufacture Buzzy, arguing that it would enable her to help more patients.
“He said, ‘you’re always going to feel bad every time you hear someone cry—and you could have made a difference,’” she recalls.
In 2006, Baxter began applying for a patent. Looking for a potential partner to help her make Buzzy, Baxter spoke with medical device manufacturers. They suggested that she create a throwaway product, which didn’t appeal to her. Besides being wasteful, it would put the product out of reach of patients on a tight budget. “I didn’t think that someone who was dealt a chronic illness should have to buy it over and over,” she recalls. With no sales force, she spread the word about Buzzy by telling moms about it and optimizing her website for search terms such as “needle pain,” “needle fear” and “pain management” so it would appear high in web searches by potential users. She also drew visitors to her website by posting articles on topics of widespread interest, like dealing with tantrums.
Ultimately, Baxter decided to make the device on her own. She applied for a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health to design and test Buzzy. Meanwhile, Baxter hired Formation Design, a product design firm in Atlanta, to create a cute, reusable vibrating device. The firm agreed to work at a discounted rate until she could secure funding for the business—anticipating that she would get the grant and be able to pay its full fee later. The first Buzzys were manufactured in China in 2009.
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Meanwhile, after three attempts, Baxter finally secured the SBIR grant. Initially, her application had positioned Buzzy in a way that competed for funding with medical devices such as stents and dialysis machines. “As a vibrating bee, my application didn’t fare well by comparison, and none of the people rating the grant thought needle pain was important,” she said.