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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: Taking the Sting Out of Needles

A pediatric emergency doctor’s invention helps patients manage pain without drugs.

Photo by Ian Curcio

Kiplinger's spoke with Dr. Amy Baxter (pictured left), 47, founder and CEO of MMJ Labs, an Atlanta-based manufacturer of drug-free pain relief products, about what motivated her to leave her medical practice and pursue entrepreneurship. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

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Why did you start working on a mechanical pain blocker? As a pediatric emergency physician, I realized that health care providers often underestimate children’s fear of needles. I wanted to reduce kids’ pain and anxiety and give them a tool to help them cope.

What inspired Buzzy? I researched pain nerves and learned that you can crowd out sharp pain with motion and cold—like when you hold a burned finger under cold water. Cold wasn’t a problem, but how could I re-create the sensation of running water? In 2004, while driving home from work, my car’s steering wheel vibrated because the tires were unbalanced, and my hand grew numb. I realized that I could combine cold and vibration. I created a prototype using vibration motors from cell phones, plastic ice cubes and a battery unit. I gave it bumblebee stripes and googly eyes, and Buzzy was born.

Buzzy XL Personal, $59.95, Photo: MMJ Labs

How did you bring Buzzy to market? After proving it worked, I thought someone would scoop it up. But no one did. So I founded MMJ Labs, named for my three children, in 2006 with a $1.2 million innovation research grant from the National Institutes of Health. I hired a design group to take my idea and make it commercial.

Did you patent the device? Yes, I wrote the patents and prepared filings for medical-device clearances from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved Buzzy for needle pain, as well as arthritic, muscular and injury pain.

How did you finance your company? Besides the grant from NIH, we got a $10,000 Huggies grant from Kimberly-Clark, a $250,000 grant from Chase Business Banking, and a grant of about $70,000 from a consortium funded by the FDA to develop pediatric medical devices. Plus, I took a $120,000 small-business line of credit from the bank.

How did you market Buzzy? I went to medical conferences attended by child life specialists—hospital professionals who explain procedures to children and help them cope with pain. More than 5,000 hospitals and 50,000 consumers have adopted it. Now, pharmaceutical companies are buying Buzzy in bulk for patients. We also sell to individuals on our website [two sizes, $40 and $60] and on

You’ve adapted the device for adults? The adult model is called VibraCool. In December, we’ll launch a larger version with a neoprene cuff that you can attach to your knee or elbow.

Are you making a profit? Yes. Last year, we had $550,000 in gross revenues. This year, we expect to take in about $1.2 million. I run a lean ship, with two full-time employees. I’ve only taken a salary since April 2015.

Are you still practicing medicine? I left my practice in March. It was really hard, but my daughter told me, “Mom, 50,000 children worldwide use Buzzy every night. Your karmic book is balanced.”

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