essica Traver has always loved delivering good news to patients.
When she was in high school, Traver volunteered as a hospital candy striper, doing everything from helping patients get settled after they were admitted to delivering cards and flowers.
“People would often tell me how much they looked forward to seeing me,” Traver says. “It was my first experience seeing the direct impact my time and work could have on someone’s life—it definitely sparked my interest in medical technology.”
As a result, Traver pursued a degree in mechanical engineering and, after graduating from Purdue University in 2014, dove right into a master’s degree program. Her thesis topic: innovation in the medical device world, and how universities could better teach engineers how to succeed in the industry.
“To be honest, I was frustrated with my undergraduate experience because there weren’t enough opportunities for me to learn about concept generation, prototyping and commercialization in the field of medical devices,” Traver explains.
The Moment That Sparked a Medical Epiphany
While working on her thesis, Traver heard about Texas Medical Center’s first Biodesign Innovation Fellowship, a year-long program based in Houston that challenges participants to identify a need within the medical technology space with the goal of helping them bring a new product to market.
Traver was one of 600 applicants—and one of eight accepted to the fellowship.
During the first three months of her fellowship in 2015, she spent more than 250 hours with doctors, nurses and emergency medicine technicians at Texas Medical Center hospitals, observing surgeries and other procedures and talking to the medical staff about where they saw a need for new and better technologies.
On one of her rotations in the emergency room, Traver witnessed a lumbar puncture, commonly known as a spinal tap. She watched multiple physicians try—and fail—to perform the painful procedure on an 18-year-old boy.
The project they’re working on is interesting in that everyone gets it, even though everyone hasn’t had a spinal tap. It has the potential to address a relatively large, unmet need that could have a big impact on patients.
And she learned this was a common scenario: Currently, physicians use a palpation technique to feel for the vertebrae in order to guess where to insert the needle, which often leads to multiple attempts to properly place it. In fact, a medical resident told her doctors hated doing the procedure.
“I thought: There has to be a better way to do this. We have to find a way to make this better for the patients and the physicians,” Traver recalls.
While this wasn’t the only medical problem Traver and the others in her fellowship identified—in fact, they named close to 400—they agreed to focus on creating a product that could make spinal taps easier to administer.
“Our goal from the start was to solve a big need,” says IntuiTap co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Nicole Moskowitz. “After assessing our skill sets as a team—as well as talking to physicians to confirm there was an unmet need, and determining the feasibility of creating a device—we thought this was a problem we could realistically solve during the course of our fellowship.”
Indeed, by the end of the fellowship, they were ready to launch IntuiTap: the world’s first device designed to help physicians perform spinal punctures successfully on the first try, using imaging of the spine, plus needle guidance capabilities and analytics, to improve their accuracy.
From Budding Start-Up to Rising Star
Later that year, the team entered their idea into a competition at the AdvaMed medical technology conference and won an award from Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, an incubator arm of Johnson & Johnson focused on helping support budding healthcare start-ups.
The prize? A year’s lease at any of the five JLABS incubator facilities located across the country and Canada.
IntuiTap chose to stay in Houston. JLABS @ TMC, says it’s been exciting to watch the visionary company at work., Head of
“The project they’re working on is interesting in that everyone gets it, even though everyone hasn’t had a spinal tap,” Luby says. “If they’re successful in bringing this technology forward, it has the potential to address a relatively large, unmet need that could have a big impact on patients.”
Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to use my skills to better the healthcare industry and patients’ lives. Our team is doing it. And that’s not something every start-up can say.
Traver, now IntuiTap's CEO, is confident that being a part of the JLABS community is going to help IntuiTap reach that goal.
“At JLABS, we are surrounded by other start-up companies, which is great for sharing insight and advice,” she explains. “Not only that, we’ve also got access to people like Tom, who worked for many years helping Johnson & Johnson figure out which start-ups to acquire. Access to someone like him is really rare.”
In fact, in addition to incubator space and equipment, IntuiTap and other JLABS start-ups have access to many Johnson & Johnson employees across multiple divisions who can help provide expertise and guidance. JLABS will even routinely bring in venture capitalists to meet with incubatees.
“What’s nice is there are no strings attached," Luby says. "We do everything we can to help these companies succeed, and if they are one of the lucky ones who develop a successful product, Johnson & Johnson has first access to all of this great innovation—but we don’t ask for equity or rights in any of these companies.”
The Beginning of a Journey to Improve Lives
IntuiTap is just seven months into their tenure at JLABS @ TMC and is now focused on first-round testing of its product.
The device they’re testing is a combination between an imaging platform and a needle guide, explains Moskowitz.
“What we want to do is offer doctors the opportunity to see the vertebrae, and then help them place the spinal needle accurately,” she says. “What’s more, we wanted this to happen in a handheld, easy-to-use device—typically, doctors perform this procedure blindly, or by using a costly ultrasound or X-ray. So we’ll be bringing doctors in to interact with the device in a similar manner as they would in a clinical setting.”
Traver, who, along with Moskowitz, was named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 List this year, says she’s confident that the team can jump any hurdles that come up as they charge toward their goal: to finalize the design by the end of 2017 and start preliminary meetings with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine how soon they can submit their product for FDA approval.
“Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to use my skills to better the healthcare industry and patients’ lives,” Traver says. “Our team is doing it. The process isn’t always easy, but we’ve stuck together and pushed through. And that’s not something every start-up can say.”
Watch Traver in action at JLABS in this vlog—and look for upcoming stories on Traver and her team as we track IntuiTap's progress over the next year.