While driving one day, Amy Baxter felt her steering wheel vibrate due to mechanical difficulty, leaving her hands numb. The sensation--or lack thereof--became a classic "aha" moment.
An M.D. specializing in pediatric emergency medicine, Baxter had been dealing with her young son's traumatic experience receiving vaccination injections. That day in the car, she hit upon the idea that vibration, combined with cold, might overwhelm nerve endings and allow for pain-free injections, helping patients with fear of needles. After a few informal and pain-free tests on her own kids using a medical device for testing neurologic reflexes and a bag of frozen peas from her freezer, she knew she was onto something.
From 2004 to 2005 and through a move from Dallas to Atlanta, she quietly worked on her idea for a portable vibrating and cooling device she dubbed Buzzy. She sourced motors online, learned about selling--even smashed open old cell phones to check out their vibrating mechanisms. In Georgia, she teamed with the industrial design agency Formation Design Group. But every advance was overshadowed by fears: Was she putting her medical practice at risk by devoting funding, time and energy to a project that might go nowhere?
"The big, scary part was, what if it didn't really work and I put my academic reputation on the line? What if I put all the time away from the medical practice and my family and it failed?" she says. She considered giving up. But her husband asked her a question that changed her mind: "How will you feel every time you hear about someone fainting from needles or avoiding healthcare?"
A survey by Target found that one-quarter of people who avoid flu shots do so out of fear of needles. Baxter's own research found that 49 percent of children have a significant fear of injections.
So Baxter got serious and applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Innovation Research Program. After two rejections, success came in 2009: a $180,000 grant plus $900,000 upon completion of an initial study. Still, fears about her professional reputation loomed large: The grant stipulated that she spend 51 percent of her time working on the device, so she had to cut her research hours and time at her medical practice. To Baxter's surprise, her colleagues at Atlanta's Pediatric Emergency Medicine Associates were enthusiastic and supportive.
Two years later she had bragging rights: In 2011, Buzzy won the prestigious Medical Design Excellence Award, alongside inventions from 3M, Roche and Abbott.
Today Buzzy devices are in 500 hospitals in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; other international distribution deals are in the works. Buzzy is available to consumers via the company's site and online venues like Amazon. Revenue is projected at $800,000 for 2012 and is expected to top $5 million in 2015.
Baxter hears regularly from patients who were about to quit treatments or switch to less effective medications because the pain and fear of injections was too much to bear. "People don't get their cancer diagnosed because they are afraid of the blood tests. One family's child had a three-hour ordeal every three nights because of a shot she had to get. With Buzzy, that got reduced to five minutes," Baxter says. "Knowing we make that kind of difference feels great."