From grad student to biotech CEO: “10 things I’ve learned launching a health tech start-up”
At just 27 years old, Jessica Traver is leading the charge at IntuiTap, a company that wants to reinvent how spinal taps are performed. She reflects on the successes—and setbacks—she’s had as a game-changing entrepreneur.
Five years ago, Jessica Traver was in her senior year as a mechanical engineering student at Purdue University. If you had asked her what she envisioned herself doing in 2018, following graduate school, “running a medical device company that I co-founded” would have seemed like a pipe dream.
But as the CEO of IntuiTap Medical, that’s exactly what the 27-year-old Houston resident is doing.
She and her team are working to create a device that helps physicians perform spinal punctures more accurately. Their hope is that, by combining new imaging technology with predictive algorithms, the device will allow doctors to visualize precisely where they need to insert the needle for optimal success.
We’ve been following Traver’s story since October 2017, when IntuiTap had just begun its residency at JLABS @ TMC, part of Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s network of healthcare incubators located across the country. We last checked in with her in April, and since then, IntuiTap has begun development on the second prototype of its device. After getting initial investment money, the company is now focused on raising a new round of funding that will help the team finalize product design and prepare for FDA submission.
It’s been an exciting journey for the young entrepreneur, so we asked Traver to share her top 10 list of invaluable lessons learned as a member of the JLABS family—plus her hopes for the future.
You need more than just cool office space to start off right.
When we launched IntuiTap, one of our first priorities was to find the right office space. We knew we wanted to be near the Texas Medical Center and connected to the budding Houston innovation scene, and we also knew it was important to be part of a start-up community. The program at JLABS @ TMC checked all of those boxes.
I’ve learned in the last year that being in an incubator setting like JLABS can be truly transformative for a growing company. Beyond providing us with much-needed office space, the JLABS team is always there to connect us with the right people and resources whenever we hit a roadblock. That support has allowed us to grow much more quickly, because we’ve been able to focus on bigger-picture things, like fundraising.
It’s important to clearly define where you’re going—and what you’ll need to get there.
I found the more I learned about the market we were breaking into, the more I was able to hone my vision for IntuiTap, and the better I became at establishing clear priorities for myself and my team.
For example, we struggled to move our device forward early on because we initially tried to incorporate too many components.
As we tested these early prototypes, we realized that one major component of our device at the time was completely unnecessary to a large segment of our market and was just a “nice to have.” We eliminated that part of the design, which allowed our team to focus our resources and efforts on the necessary aspects of the device.
Plus, I was able to also better communicate specific needs to our supporters, which helped them better help us—especially when we needed extra guidance, like when we hit a setback in preparing for our FDA submission.
We had identified about 40 devices that were similar to our device, but none that we could consider a true predecessor. When we asked our mentors for help with this specific problem, one of them connected us with our current regulatory consultant, who has expertly guided us through the tricky FDA submission process.
But you still need to expect the unexpected.
I wish I’d known a year ago that no matter how good your team is, or how hard you work, things are going to happen that are out of your control and that can change your timelines and delay milestones—and I could have better planned for it.
If I could, I would go back and add flexibility into my timeline, and budget to account for unforeseen delays, such as lead time with manufacturers and approval time for studies. This way, my team and I would face less stress when we hit those inevitable hurdles.
It’s OK to let yourself learn as you go.
I was fresh out of grad school when we started IntuiTap, and wasn’t at all prepared to run a company.
I was fresh out of grad school when we started IntuiTap, and wasn’t at all prepared to run a company. I’m still tackling new challenges every day, but that’s one of the big things I love about what I do.
And I’ve come to realize—through my own experience and conversations I’ve had with other entrepreneurs—that you may never feel truly ready to strike out on your own. But when you’re passionate about something, you just have to jump in and learn as much as you can along the way.
Be sure to take advantage of experts who know more than you do.
Beyond learning by doing, you have to seek information and advice from others who’ve successfully done what you’re trying to do and can speak from many years of experience.
Early on in our residency, we were lucky to be advised by Dr. Sanjeev Dutta, Vice President of Scientific Innovation, Medical Devices, Johnson & Johnson Innovation.
While he was pursuing his MBA at Stanford University, Dr. Dutta was part of a movement to standardize the use of ultrasound for central line placements, so he had firsthand experience with some of the hurdles associated with trying to change the standard of care from a blind needle insertion technique to one that required image guidance—which is what we’re doing with IntuiTap. He helped us understand the type of resistance we would most likely get from physicians and hospitals, and gave us some really great advice for how to address their concerns and overcome that resistance.
We’ve kept his advice in mind ever since, and I’m sure we will continue to use it going forward.
But don’t underestimate what your peers can teach you.
I’ve learned an incredible amount from other healthcare incubator companies at JLABS.
Being surrounded by people who are doing the same things you are, even if you’re at different stages or in different markets, is truly invaluable. It allows you to bounce ideas off each other and talk through challenges that might otherwise trip you up.
Earlier this year, for example, we ran into delays with getting approval on one of our Institutional Review Board (IRB) submissions, which is one of the steps you have to take in order to perform studies on patients. Being able to test our device on a wide variety of people is crucial to our research and development because factors like a patient’s height, weight and age—and even the size of an individual’s vertebrae—can affect how a spinal tap is performed.
We were told the IRB process should take no more than two months, but it ended up being about six months, so we had to keep pushing back our timeline and testing plan for our device, which was frustrating, to say the least.
One day at lunch at JLABS, I was sitting with team members from two other resident companies that were much further along than us, and it came up. They explained that it had been a common issue they had also dealt with at every stage of testing, from IRB review to clinical trials. They had a good understanding of the average time each process actually took, which they happily shared with me. This was very beneficial because it allowed me to better plan for the future, avoiding some frustrations down the road.
It’s not a sign of trouble if your company vision evolves.
The development plan we proposed a year ago is completely different from the one we have today—and I don’t think this is a bad thing at all.
The development plan we proposed a year ago is completely different from the one we have today—and I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. It’s OK to let your goals evolve and your plans change.
It’s not that the original plan was bad. It’s just that, as we built out our device and began testing, we learned a lot about our end users, the way in which the device functions and how it fits into a physician’s overall workflow.
These insights allowed us to make changes to our design, which will ultimately result in a much better and more effective device.
Remember that progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
A few months ago, we were hoping to test a new IntuiTap prototype on patients in a clinical setting, but the approval process was delayed. It was a harsh setback.
Instead of trying to keep forging down that one path, we changed tactics and partnered with some of the physicians we met during the previous approval process. They helped us test the device on medical training models in a nonclinical setting, and although this wasn’t as ideal as what we’d originally envisioned, we were still able to gather important information about how the prototype performs in a more real-world setting.
Plus, we had participants from different backgrounds—such as emergency medicine and anesthesiology—and of varying levels of expertise, ranging from first-year residents to attending physicians. By having such a wide pool of people, we were really able to understand the needs of each type of user, which is helping us design our second prototype to better suit the needs of all potential stakeholders.
The important thing to do when delays like this happen is to take a step back and re-evaluate your plan, and look at what other activities you can do to continue to move forward and make progress.
Surround yourself with supporters.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to build a strong support system. Launching a company can take a serious emotional toll and having people you can lean on at work—and in the rest of your life—can be the difference between success and failure.
I think this advice is especially relevant for female founders as there aren’t as many of us—especially in the STEM fields. As women in leadership and business, we have to stick together and remember to support and encourage each other as often as we can.
Finally, don’t overplan your future.
A lot of people have asked me where I see myself five years from now, but I don’t have an exact answer for that.
A lot of people have asked me where I see myself five years from now, but I don’t have an exact answer for that. I want to keep my mind open and not define where I hope to be just yet.
I just know that I’m passionate about creating things that make the world a better place, and about giving back to the communities that have given me so much. There are so many different paths that my life can take next, and I’m looking forward to all of the exciting things that might come my way in the future.
I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned. Being open to opportunities that don’t necessarily fit into your natural next step can often lead to the most incredible, unbelievable journeys—like the one I’m on right now.
Learn more about IntuiTap Medical’s first year at JLABS @ TMC in this video, with cameos from Jessica Traver—and her team members and supporters.