Are Your Questions Important Enough to Build a Business Around? With Amy Baxter of MMJ Labs

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

If you can’t write a compelling enough grant to support your research, maybe your question isn’t that important.”
I had the opportunity to interview Amy Baxter, MD, Founder and CEO of MMJ Labs. She came at her business from the standpoint of an academic researcher — in academia, a study worth doing is worth having someone else pay for. If you can’t write a compelling enough grant to support your research, maybe your question isn’t that important. When Amy came up with the idea for Buzzy®, she made prototypes on her own time and used her savings to get to the point where she believed the concept of combining cold and vibration to block needle pain was viable enough to go forward. Then a fellow pain researcher and Amy wrote for and got a grant to research Buzzy in kids getting IV sticks. That grant helped pay for some of the engineering, so then she wrote for and got a National Institutes of Health grant for 1.1M (SBIR, Small Business Innovations in Research). The grant didn’t pay for any marketing, so she got used to growing organically through word of mouth. Thus far the company has been growing by bootstrapping, using revenues to fund medical trade shows to introduce Buzzy to early adopters for allergy shots, immunizations, and dermatology shots like Botox. Buzzy has now been used for over 31 million needle procedures, and the company is finally at the point where they are raising funding for their Vibracool low back pain device.

Thanks for doing this with us. What’s your backstory?

When my son had a horrific 4-year-old vaccination experience—despite me being a pediatrician in the system—I decided to find a solution to block needle pain. I discovered the combined efficacy of cold and vibration in 2006. After creating and using a prototype for my own children, I felt led to reduce her clinical work to research and develop the concept to make the device widely available. I formed a company in order to qualify for an NIH Small Business Innovation grant, and subsequent publications on the Buzzy pain platform have been replicated worldwide. I really hope my publication of some of our NIH results in Vaccine July 2017 will change the way we vaccinate preschool children, to reduce the preventable growing epidemic of needle phobia.

Running the growing business, the research division at my pediatric emergency department, and practicing medicine and being a mom of three was starting to be overwhelming. When a colleague used Buzzy to avoid opioid use after a knee replacement, I decided with my family to stop clinical practice to develop a pain reliever to address the opioid epidemic. I became a full time CEO in 2016. My mission is to uncouple pain from fear, and eliminate unnecessary pain. Through TED talks and lectures at medical futurist conferences, I hope to change both the way physicians are trained and the way patients learn to approach pain.

My work in researching needle pain is world renowned; additional achievements and recognition include:

  • Top 40 Transformers in Healthcare (MM&M 2017)
  • 9 Women Med Tech Leaders to Know (+Mass Device, March, 2017)
  • Forbes Top Ten Healthcare Disruptors (2015)
  • Wall Street Journal’s “Idea Person” (2014)
  • Most Innovative CEO in 2014 (Georgia BIO)
  • Inc. Magazine’s Top Women in Tech to watch (2012)

What is the most interesting project that you are working on right now?

Everyone has been asking for a low back pain product. While our Knee vibracool can be doubled up to use in the back, I’ve been prototyping a new hot or cold vibration device for low back pain. We’re doing a kickstarter May 1 for our “Backster” and if we raise enough we’ll also tool a “hipster”. There’s not a good name for “shoulderster”, but that’s where I’ll go next. While we have over 20 papers showing our frequency of vibration and cold block pain, vibration speeds healing and increases blood flow, and cold reduces inflammation. It’s so logical for injuries and chronic pain. Happy to send pictures of the prototyping process.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

I’m most grateful for my two colleagues Val Staffey and Jennifer Tipping. These brilliant women came on with me almost 8 years ago. They have grown with and stuck with the company, and really care about changing the world. I’m also grateful to Wendy Baldwin, a researcher who used to run a division of the NIH. She was the one who said “you know, you might be able to get a grant to study Buzzy through a Small Business Innovation Research Grant…” I’m grateful to Tiffany Wilson, a medical device executive who introduced me to the staff of Converge, which gave me my first speaking opportunity. I’m grateful to exponential medicine and Daniel Kraft for giving my pain relief innovation a forum. I’m also really grateful to Zee Frank for including my Buzzy story in a “wandering mind” buzzfeed clip — you have no idea how much my kids enjoyed that!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As my daughter said when I was fretting about whether it was ethical to stop practicing medicine, “Mom, every night there are 50,000 people taking their shots with Buzzy. Your karmic book is balanced.” I mean, we make devices that block pain. When people use our VibraCool to get through surgeries without opioids, when they get pregnant using Buzzy for IVF shots when they were going to give up, or when they tell us Buzzy was the one gift their child wanted after a cancer diagnosis… any and all of these and hundreds of other stories reinforce the value of what we’re doing. About once a month I get a thank you that makes me cry, or makes me yell through the walls at everyone else in the company to tell them the story. Few things are as gratifying as having a passion you know will outlive you. We know we’re changing the world.

What are your “5 things I wish someone had told me before I started,” and why?

Wisdom is a funny thing. You can rarely truly use it until you’ve lived through so much you are able to see it for yourself without someone telling you. So, realizing it’s a futile endeavor, these are the pieces of wisdom I’ve emerged with—and wisdom people DID tell me, but I wish I’d acted on sooner.

  1. No one steals an idea, they steal a finished successful invention. Get lots of feedback early from random people who don’t love you to make sure it’s worth investing a good decade of your life.
  2. Never be too influenced by any one day. Being an entrepreneur is a series of near death events — try to approach the journey with equilibrium.
  3. Try to do as much good for other entrepreneurs as you can. Build a good ecosystem.
  4. Sacrifice everything for quality. It will pay off in the long run.
  5. Form a board early on. Everyone does better with artificial deadlines, accountability, and outside advice.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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