She Invented Buzzy, the Drug-Free Pain Relief Device

Pain specialist Amy Baxter couldn’t protect her own son from the distress of injections. So she invented a device that would do the job

by Jillian Keenan
dr amy baxter image
During the start-up phase, Baxter and her staff worked out of the basement of her Atlanta home, aka “the hive.”
Photograph: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao

Baxter and Louis took out a second mortgage on their home, and while still working full time at the ER, she started searching for an industrial-design company to refine her prototype. During this period of her life, she says, “I lost all pop-culture social currency. CSI? Mad Men? Grey’s Anatomy? I never saw a single episode of any of those shows. The tiny details of running a business were overwhelming.” Most design firms charge as much as $100,000 to work up a prototype, but she finally found a company that would do it for $12,000. “One of the people who worked there had children who were afraid of needles,” says Baxter, “and they believed the product was important. But it’s not like there’s one fixed price. There’s $1,000 here and a couple of thousand dollars there, and things add up. Each of the prototypes we made cost $1,000.”

Several groups stepped forward with financial support for Buzzy, including the National Institutes of Health, from which she received a Small Business Innovation Research grant of $1.1 million. In the summer of 2008, Baxter hired her first employee (she now has six), and in the spring of 2009 she celebrated the arrival from China of her first shipment of Buzzys. “I felt this stunned, chilled satisfaction of having created something that never existed before,” she says. The first batch sold so quickly that by November she needed another 5,000 units.

The second time around, the shipment was riddled with defects. Some Buzzys had sickly greenish stripes, others had blurry or off-center eyes, and a few buzzed so loudly that they sounded like chain saws. “One of the nurses at the hospital had a Buzzy from the second shipment,” says Baxter. “It sounded like someone was using a jackhammer. Her eyes got really wide, and my eyes got wide, and there was a crowd saying, ‘This can’t be right,’ ‘This has been overhyped.’ ” Baxter and her employees had to go through all 5,000 Buzzys to remove the defective units. It then took three months of negotiations to get the company to replace them and put quality control procedures in place.

But that incident paled in comparison to what happened next. Baxter was in Las Vegas to deliver a lecture at the American College of Emergency Physicians. That evening, sitting in her hotel room checking e-mail, she spotted a message from one of her employees. The subject line read, “Oh no.” The Chinese factory she’d hired to make tote bags for the Buzzys had burned down—or so its owners claimed. The totes, for which she’d already paid $10,000, had literally gone up in smoke. Despite interventions from both the Georgia Economic Development Office and agencies in China, she was never able to get the money back. Since then, Baxter has shifted all her production to the U.S.

Today, Baxter has fully transformed into the businesswoman she originally didn’t want to be. She’s on sabbatical from her medical practice and works full time on Buzzy. In the true entrepreneurial spirit, she doesn’t dwell on setbacks and instead focuses on her customers, many of whom have filled her home with gifts, tokens and letters describing how Buzzy changed their lives. One boy with a needle-phobic sibling wrote to Baxter to thank her for giving him his family back. An Australian woman who had all but given up the idea of having children because she couldn’t tolerate the fertility shots posted a message on Baxter’s Facebook page (on Baxter’s birthday), triumphantly announcing that Buzzy had made it possible for her to finally become pregnant. The face-to-face conversations with customers are especially meaningful. “After Karen Mae Sledge’s visit, my employees and I felt elevated from being a small ‘mompreneur’ business to feeling as though we had a greater purpose,” says Baxter. “If something happened to make Buzzy fail tomorrow, I would still be satisfied that I had made a difference.” When she looked through the basket to see what Sledge had given her, one gift caught her eye: a bag of Life Savers.

Jillian Keenan is a New York City–based freelance writer.

Next: Illness Changes Everything

First pubished in the May 2013 issue

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