When Rebecca Love, a registered nurse, first became interested in starting her own company, she went to a healthcare hackathon, just like any aspiring entrepreneur would.
It was a great experience, Love recalled, “like my light bulb lit up.” She learned about identifying customers, marketing and networking—things that she never learned in nursing school.
There was only one problem: she was surrounded by physicians, and no nurses.
“I didn’t feel that I belonged there,” Love said. As she attended more hackathons, she found an odd pattern. “Across Boston, there is a very small number of nurses attending hackathons, but a large number of the winning teams at these hackathons have nurses on the team because nurses have the practical experience to make the innovation a reality.”
Love founded her company, HireNurses.com, in 2013. At the time she was caring for elderly patients who wanted to stay at home, but ended up in nursing homes because they can’t find proper care.
Love, who was teaching at nursing school, noticed many of her students have difficulty finding jobs after graduation, so she decided to start a company to connect these patients with nurses.
“I knew there was a need for it,” she said, but her idea didn’t receive an overwhelmingly positive feedback from the nursing community. “I reached out to every nurse I knew [about the idea,] hundreds, but it was radio silent. If I hadn’t come across a few successful entrepreneurs who told me I had a good idea and taught me the business side of things, I would have gone out of business.”
This is the challenge that many nurses face: there are few successful nurse-turned- entrepreneur stories out there, and it’s difficult to find mentors who can give them the extra push. Many nurses don’t see themselves as the driving force in medical innovation.
Tiffany Kelley, the founder and CEO of Nightingale Apps LLC and iCare Nursing Solutions LLC, said that when she started her companies, there was no pathway for nurses who want to become entrepreneurs.
“There are so few of us, and there are so few that we see,” she said. “People don’t know it’s a possibility.”
Nurses solve problems every day by the bedside, Kelley said, and the same problem might persist every day, only the nurses and the patients might be different.
“How do we solve the same problem is a systematic way?” Kelley asks when aspiring nurse-entrepreneurs come to her for advice.
Sometimes the solution is to create an app or a website. Sometimes it’s creating a device.
When Janet Conneely and Olivia Oppel, two nurses at the Boston Children’s Hospital, set out to create a device that helps mothers to breastfeed babies with cleft palate, they didn’t know where to start.
Their idea of creating such device arose when Conneely was visiting a new mother who just had a child with cleft palate. The baby couldn’t create enough suction with her mouth to draw milk, and the mother was pleading for a way to help her child.
The two veteran nurses have plenty clinical experience and are passionate about solving the problem, but neither have background in business or research.
“Many mother feel passionate about breastfeeding their children, and it is a very emotional experience,” Conneely said. “We went out there and bought every available product that helps that mother to breastfeed her baby, but found that nothing worked the way we wanted it to.”
For more than three years, Conneely and Oppel maintained a fulltime nursing job at Boston Children’s while working on the side to solve the breastfeed problem. They partnered up with the Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator and teamed up with Salim Afshar, a surgeon in the hospital’s Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery.
Together, they developed the Breast Breeze, a soft pouch for milk that can be tucked into a nursing bra with a screw-on opening that can attach a bottle nipple. Babies who can’t create enough suction are able to get milk with compressing the nipple.
“We learned so much by during the process, like intellectual property and getting patent,” Conneely said. The team filed a patent application earlier this year, and is in process of negotiating manufacturing and market partners.
Word of their success has been circulating around their department. No nurses have asked them for advice in innovation yet, but the two said they hope more nurses with innovative spirits will reach out and learn from their paths.
Nurses are natural innovators in the healthcare industry, Love said. They are constantly working by the bedside, spotting problems, and sometimes solving those problems with workarounds.
But not many nurses know how to take their innovation from bedside to beyond, and they are not trained to think about the business side of the healthcare industry, Love said.
“In traditional nursing education, nurses are trained to do two things: number one, don’t harm a patient. Number two, don’t kill a patient,” Love said. “What that means is that you don’t challenge the protocol, you don’t challenge authority. If you fail, you will harm or kill a patient … but the idea about innovation is to fail, to fail fast, and to learn from those failures.”
Last year, Love reached out to Northeastern University, her alma mater, to host an event that aims to inspiring nurses to become innovators. The program soon gained traction, and turned into the Nurse Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at NU.
“It’s important to recognize that nurses are as capable of making decisions and innovations as the physicians,” Love said. “And it’s important to create a community that shows more examples of nurses who are innovating, introducing nurses to other nurses who have done it.”
Weihua Li recently graduated from Boston University with a dual degree in journalism and political science. Before joining MedTech Boston as an editorial intern, she edited the school’s independent newspaper, The Daily Free Press, and interned at WAMU and WBUR. When she is not reporting, you can find her at Boston’s newest bubble tea shop, looking for the best boba in town.
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