This Former Rugby Player is Now a Game-Changing Inventor
Personal experience drove Jessie Garcia to create her novel head impact indicator.
Identify a problem, then work to solve it. That’s the basic formula for invention, and that’s exactly how Jessie Garcia came to create the Tozuda Head Impact Indicator, a tiny tool that attaches to a helmet and signals to its wearer when a significant impact has occurred.
Garcia’s invention is seemingly simple. Measuring about two inches by one inch, the clear rectangular device attaches — with aerospace-grade tape — to the back of any helmet. When a user’s head is hit hard enough to cause a potential concussion, the device’s nonelectric mechanism releases a red dye into the clear chamber. “If it’s red, check your head,” is the company’s catchy tagline. Credit for that goes to Garcia’s father, she says. “He’s the marketing genius behind our slogan.”
Spanish for “hard-headed,” the name Tozuda is an affectionate nod to Garcia’s grandmother, who Garcia has always been close with and seen as a role model. “My abuela used to call me tozuda growing up,” she says. “I thought it was really, really fitting.”
A first-generation Cuban American, Garcia grew up in an entrepreneurial family in New Jersey. She played rugby in high school, and continued playing at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, until she sustained a concussion that left her symptomatic for six months.
In 2013, she started on her journey to invent an affordable and effective device to help others know when it’s time to have a doctor check for a potential concussion. Along the way, she experienced a host of challenges familiar to entrepreneurs from funding to manufacturing, but her persistence and “hard-headedness” paid off. She launched her product in 2019, and it’s being used around the world today in professional sports, construction, and other fields.
We talked to Garcia about how she navigated the entrepreneurial pathway to develop her prototype and take it to market, and what advice she has for other invention-based startups who might not have the resources or a clear direction on where to go next to make their innovative idea a reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the company?
Concussions were a personal problem for me, back to when I was a rugby player at Lehigh University. In 2010, I was playing in a game, and my coach and I didn’t recognize that I had a concussion. So I kept going into contact and got hit again. I suffered from post-concussive symptoms for about six months afterwards, where I had trouble reading and writing, and had sensitivity to light.
I went to look for something on the market that would have prevented it — at the time there was only a $300 mouthguard detector. As a college student, it’s something I simply couldn’t afford. I used to go through three or four mouthguards a season. I thought, “There has to be a better way to do that,” and that’s when the lightbulb went off for me.
When did you first start actively working on the idea behind Tozuda, and what are the first steps you took?
I ended up graduating with my undergraduate degree from Lehigh, and got a master’s in technical entrepreneurship. And it was in that program in 2013 that I really started working on the idea. That’s when I realized my story wasn’t unique. The CDC says 3.8 million concussions occur each year, but 50 percent of them go undiagnosed or unrecognized — meaning that number is nearly double what the stats say. So that’s when I started becoming obsessed with the problem and going out and talking to other players and coaches and teams and learning more about what could be helpful at that level.
I was a rugby player, so I didn’t wear a helmet. At first, I wanted to make a mouthguard detector as well, because I was thinking I could just do this differently. And the first step was realizing people hated that location. I understand why other companies put sensors there based on proximity to your skull. But if you actually talk to people about mouthguards, they don’t have a great relationship with them. Parents say, “I just paid for braces for my child,” or “I’m a hockey player and I’m worried about not being able to breathe properly.” And everyone’s feedback — from hockey players, football players, softball, and baseball — was, “Can I just put it on my helmet?” So that gave me direction.
Electronics is what made that product expensive at the time, so I thought, “What’s the opposite of electronics?” My ideation in the very beginning was how do we detect forces without electronics? It was super basic.
What kind of support did you initially get in developing your concept and prototype?
I was surrounded by classmates who were working on their own projects, which was a support network, even though we were all working in our own silos. But once the program was over, I lost access to the maker space and tools, although I know they’ve changed that now. That was definitely a difficult time at Tozuda.
I moved back home to New Jersey. I didn’t have access to expensive software, so I enrolled at Passaic County Community College to get access to a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) class. And then my uncle owns a janitorial service company, and he had this incredibly tiny office that I was able to work out of on my nights and weekends.
How did you handle design and manufacturing?
One of the first things I saved up for was a 3D printer. But after a while, I was only getting so far with that, so I found a maker space out of Philadelphia and decided to move there with my now husband. We got access to actual machinery there, started building test rigs, and upped the ante with the R&D behind the product.
The biggest step after we finally liked our design was that we needed injection molded parts. We actually owned and operated an old injection molding machine for about two years. We called her Bertha, but things kept going wrong with it, and it was getting to the point where she was unfixable and had to be decommissioned.
That’s when it was time for us to seek an outside injection molding company, and Protolabs is one of the top prototyping injection molders in the U.S. We heard about their Cool Idea Award Program where you submit your idea and why you’d like to work with them, and we were incredibly lucky that we won. We got a grant for our first tooling for all of our parts through them. And that was just such a game changer. We didn’t have access to capital at that time, and that really changed the narrative for our company.
You also used Kickstarter to get to market — describe that process.
Kickstarter is what launched us, and we actually sold product. We successfully fulfilled our Kickstarter in 2019 with “version one” of our indicator product using our own machine. We made all the parts ourselves, which I’m really proud of.
The feedback we got from this first version was that it didn’t look as nice on the helmet, it protruded out a little bit. It was also harder to see, so people wanted bigger visibility for the color change. And that’s when we thought we should do one more redesign before a bigger type of product launch.
Who is using the current version of your product today?
Our primary users are recreational and team athletes — roller derby players, hockey, football, skiing, and snowboarding. The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force bobsled team is using our device, which is really cool. It was during our Kickstarter campaign that we had oil rig construction workers purchase our device, and we weren’t even thinking about industrial use cases at that point. Then we realized head injury is a huge issue in construction. If you’re wearing a helmet, then you might want to know about how hard you’re getting hit on the head.
Tell us about some of the challenges you faced as an inventor?
I think for anyone to go down this path, you need to want to, because it’s not accessible to all people. Google patent is free, you get to search on the USPTO for free, you can talk to people for free, you can sketch things out on a napkin and get really great feedback on ideation. So I think anyone can start this process, you just have to be really determined to go down it as well. Eventually I hired lawyers to write our second and third patents, but I did the first one myself.
The financial aspect was hard. I think in the startup or product development world, if you don’t have money, you go raise it from an investor or ask your family and friends. I did not have that access. But what I did was I worked, and I did this slowly. For the first several years, I was working full time, and then eventually part time until I had enough saved up to keep putting back into Tozuda. Now that I’m actually raising capital, I think investors have a lot of respect because I’ve put everything and more that I can into this. They like the skin in the game.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
COVID was a tough time. For so many businesses like ourselves, I felt like COVID hit right as we were hitting our stride as a company. I had just gotten a really great partnership with women’s roller derby. We were doing a head impact study for their sport. We had just launched our “version two” product in February 2020. So to see the world stop — and sports stop — I thought, “What are we going to do?”
And so we buckled down. We entered new markets a little sooner than we thought, like for construction workers, because some of those were considered essential workers. And then people were being a little bit more active in terms of recreational sports, going for a bike ride instead of playing football. So we were able to navigate it, but it definitely wasn’t the year that we expected.
And in terms of supply chain, we saw our lead time just jump so much. A couple of our parts used to take four weeks to get, which is long already. Then they were 20 to 32 weeks — it was just wild. And we source everything from the U.S., so lead times were affected everywhere.
You’re a huge sports fan. As an inventor and problem-solver, how important is it to choose a topic that you’re passionate about?
I think it was a big help, because I do love sports. We always joke if we’re going to a sporting event, “Oh, it’s a hard day in the office.” We could have solved problems for lots of different industries. You need discipline because passion can fizzle out or you can get frustrated, and motivation wanes and flows. I chose something that I cared about, something that I experienced, and I feel like that did help me out with how far I’ve taken it.
How did your family’s own story of immigration and entrepreneurship influence you?
I’m a first generation Cuban American, both my parents were in Cuba and have pretty extensive immigration stories. And I think growing up in a first gen household was really motivating. I think there was always a little bit of a reminder about all the sacrifices we made to get here. My family sought out a better life in the U.S., and they found entrepreneurship to be really their driver to success. I saw how hard they had to work for a dollar. I owe a lot of my success to them.
My abuela was actually a professor in Cuba. And then when she came to the U.S., none of those degrees transferred. She re-worked her way up the education system here and then eventually got her PhD again in education. She’s a force of nature. She’s the only doctor in our family still. She’s a huge role model and another example of when you want something, it might take a really, really long time, but she did it for herself.
Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman engineer or entrepreneur?
I think I don’t face it as much in engineering as I do in business. Investors tend to ask women different questions than they do men — “How do we reduce risk of this?” or “What happens if you fail?” Whereas investors tend to ask men, “If we gave you this money, how far can you go with it?”
So there’s this underlying assumption that men are ambitious, and that women aren’t innately like that. Just knowing that mindset, I now go into meetings and say, “We’re building a rocket ship here at Tozuda. I’d love for you to join. If you don’t, that’s okay. We’re going to keep building our rocket ship.”
Also, I brought my dad to trade shows early on because I needed an extra person, and everyone would go shake his hand first. And he would say, “No, this is her business.” It’s definitely affected me, but I don’t take that personally. I’d rather be underestimated, and then just kill them with competence.
Do you have any advice for other inventors and startups?
My advice is that tons of people have ideas, but very few people act on them. My biggest thing is that I didn’t have resources when I first started off. But just start with what you have. If what you have is a pen and a paper, that’s further than the person who’s just left it up in their head.
People think startups are overnight success stories. For me, it’s been eight years, so it’s a lot of time and effort, but I’m so grateful that I kept at it. There’s no better time than now to start working on your idea. Act on it and just get scrappy until you can move faster. It’s an endurance game, not a sprint.